Weather, to no one’s surprise, topped the list of 2011 concerns for cotton consultants and their clients from Texas to North Carolina.
And, based on regional reports during the annual Cotton Consultants Conference, weather issues included the gamut from record-setting drought, unrelenting heat, devastating floods, humidity and hail stones as big as lemons.
The consultants’ conference is a kick-off for the annual National Cotton Council’s Beltwide Cotton Conferences, held this year in Orlando.
“In 2011 weather took precedence over every other issue,” said Stanley Winslow, Tidewater Agronomics, Camden, N.C.
“I don’t do crop estimates anymore,” he said, since too many things can happen to a crop from the time it begins to set fruit and when farmers harvest.
“Last year started out extremely hot and dry,” Winslow said. “The crop opened earlier than usual.”
Then Hurricane Irene hit. Early cotton had about 20 percent of the bolls open when the storm hit and most of those were lost. “After Irene, we had another 14 days of hot, drizzly weather that resulted in boll rot and hard lock. We lost a lot of the crop. Some farmers who were harvesting 1,000 pounds per acre before those 14 days of bad weather harvested 700 afterward.”
Winslow said average yield would be from 600 to 700 pounds per acre.
“Hot and dry,” sums up the top concern for central Texas cotton farmers in 2011, said Mark Nemec, MJN Consulting Services of Hewitt, Texas. “We set records for hot weather and drought,” Nemec said. “We had 90 days or more of temperatures above 100 degrees. And we had 40 days when nighttime low temperature were 80 degrees or hotter.”
He said central Texas cotton farmers “had no substantial moisture” available to plant cotton. Farmers made attempts to water the crop up and even that resulted in less than desirable results.
“Some applied a half-inch of water and the next day it looked like a dustbowl.” Emergence was spotty. He said some plants emerged as much as 30 days later than first emergence. Some of those fields were replanted.
“Non-uniform emergence affected plant growth regulator applications as well as harvest aide sprays,” Nemec said. Some farmers decided to wait to defoliate even after 80 percent of bolls were open, hoping to make that other 20 percent. “They lost a lot on the ground,” he said.
Wind was a problem
Wind also played havoc with the 2011 central Texas crop. Daily winds of 20 to 30 miles per hour dried out the soil and prevented timely herbicide applications. The dry soil limited tap-root growth and affected fruit set, Nemec said.
“The heat caused pollination problems.” Top bolls were small and misshapen. He said some top bolls cracked before earlier, bottom bolls, because of the heat, which reached 118 to 120 degrees in those top bolls.
Cattlemen benefitted somewhat from abandoned cotton. “Some growers shredded and baled zeroed-out cotton,” Nemec said. Livestock producers were glad to get it since hay was in short supply over most of the Southwest.
“We had very little insect pressure,” Nemec said. “Fleahopper pressure was light. We saw some stink bugs on irrigated cotton.”
He said Texas cotton farmers have “joined the party. We now have glyphosate-resistant waterhemp.” The problem may have been worse last year because dry soils prevented soil-applied herbicides from working as efficiently as usual. “And we don’t have enough hoe hands,” to take care of weed pressure.
Harvest fires also caused trouble. The low humidity and high temperatures made stripper fires more likely, Nemec said. “One of my farmers said his stripper caught fire four times during the harvest season.”
A positive report in the gloom and doom of weather issues, he said, comes from the Boll Weevil Eradication Program. “It’s working. We caught only 28 weevils in our zone last year and most of those came from a few fields in the river bottoms.”
He said some farmers made decent cotton — from 2 to 2.5 bales per acre where water was plentiful. “But applying irrigation one day late made a difference.”
Nemec said the area has received rain in the past few weeks, as much as 8 inches in some areas. “But rivers, stock tanks and ponds are still low. We haven’t seen any runoff.”
Conditions may have been even worse in the Texas High Plains, said Bob Glodt, Agri-Search, Inc., in Plainview. He rolled off a bevy of adverbs to describe just how bad it was. “It was unbelievably, unprecedentedly, unrelentingly hot and dry,” he said.
Rainfall for planting was all but non-existent, and that during a time when cotton needs about 6 inches of moisture to get up and off to a decent start, he said. “A lot of farmers applied more than 3 inches of irrigation water just to get the crop up and to the two-leaf stage.
“By June, or even in late May, the dryland crop had failed and irrigated cotton was struggling to keep up. But we had no mosquitoes.”
And wind was constant. “I’ve never seen windy conditions to match 2011,” Glodt said. “We often had 45 mile-per-hour winds blowing all day. The evapotranspiration level was phenomenal. It was impossible to keep up.”
Glodt said farmers planted 4.53 million acres in the 41-county High Plains area. Of that, 2.48 million was dryland cotton. Some 2.18 million acres of that dryland production failed. “That’s 87 percent of the dryland crop,” Glodt said.
Of the 1.92 million irrigated acres planted, 23,000 failed. Much more produced less than typical yields.
Glodt said corn farmers abandoned a high percentage of acres. Some water resources were converted to cotton.
He said High Plains cotton farmers also dealt with a new insect pest, Kurtomathrips, is a thrips that has been detected before in Texas and Arizona but not in the High Plains for a long time. The pest seemed to concentrate on the most severely drought-damaged cotton so growers may have assumed injury came from drought.
Control, when the pest is identified, is not particularly difficult, he said.
Efficient irrigation a plus
Glodt said the unprecedented drought of 2011 graphically showed the advantages of efficient irrigation. “Efficiency paid dividends last year,” he said.
Low Energy Precision Application (LEPA) systems, with 80 percent efficiency, proved far superior to broadcast irrigation systems, at only 50 percent efficiency. On a field with 16-acre feet of water applied, the crop gets only 8 inches from the broadcast system. LEPA provides 12.8 inches.
Water use efficiency will become even more important with new water restrictions in the Underground Water District No. 1. The new rules will allow 16-acre inches of water — where available — for contiguous acres.
“Wells will have to be metered or growers will have to use some other accurate means of correlation (energy uses, for instance) to monitor water.
“These restrictions will be a challenge to adapt to,” he said. “But a lot of farmers have not been using ET demand to manage irrigation efficiently. And some have gotten away from LEPA and switched to broadcast irrigation, and I don’t understand why.”
The Mid-South also had drought and heat issues but only after early-season flooding and cold temperatures set back planting and early emergence.
“Hot and dry came after cold and wet,” said Tucker Miller, Miller Entomological Services, Drew, Miss. Early rainfall and flooding was made worse in some Delta areas when a levee was blown, flooding vast areas of farmland.
“We also had a lot of wind, which turned over center pivot systems,” Miller said. “And we had hail, lemon-sized hail.”
He said growers got a late start planting. “We like to start around April 20, but a lot that was planted that early had to be replanted,” he said. Most planting was under way in earnest by mid-May and “cotton caught up quickly.”
Miller said Mid-South cotton farmers continue to watch for glyphosate-resistant weeds, which include waterhemp, Palmer amaranth, horseweed, giant ragweed and goosegrass.
He said variety selection is another concern. “Some of our non Bt refuge cotton made 200 pounds per acre more than BG II varieties and Stoneville 5288 also performed well. Miller said he believes low-level bollworm damage may account for some of the yield difference in BGII cotton and has seen yield advantages with a supplemental spray application.
He said thrips control remains a concern. “About 70 percent of Mississippi cotton required an additional foliar application. I’m not certain why we’re seeing heavy thrips pressure.”
He said the tarnished plant bug is also troublesome and in 2011 cost farmers $97.50 per acre. That compares to only $24.50 in 2002. “We’re trying to block cotton away from corn,” he said, to limit in-migration.
“We’re managing for earliness and are making early applications of Diamond insecticide.” Mixtures are also important control tools, he said. “And we may need to shorten spray intervals in areas with heavy pressure. New chemistry may help.”
Miller said high temperatures possibly contributed to 4-bract squares in 2011. And bacterial blight has resulted in yield losses of 200 to 300 pounds per acre.
“In 2012, we need to realize that consultants have to be involved in all areas of production,” Miller said. “Knowledge is the key.”