Every production year is different, but this one has been more different than usual. “It's a different year from what we expected and from what we've had in the past three years,” says Dale Monks, Auburn University Extension cotton specialist, speaking during the recent East-Central Alabama Cotton and Peanut Tour.
Drought conditions began affecting Alabama cattle producers this past fall, says Monks, and the dry weather persisted into the spring. “We had what is typically considered March weather during the first two weeks of May. North of here, we had temperatures in the mid to upper 40s for two or three weeks. We had some seedling disease in cotton, and the roots never got a chance to develop early in the season,” he says.
Cotton plants were unable to take up the little moisture that was present in the soil, and this was soon followed by nutrient deficiencies and dropped leaves, says Monks.
“We planted about 570,000 acres of cotton in Alabama, and USDA has us harvesting about 530,000 acres with 40,000 acres being abandoned. We've already seen a number of acres, especially in southeast Alabama's Wiregrass region, being destroyed. The Wiregrass probably is the hardest hit region in the state. Cotton planted in that area in late April or early May didn't get a rain until the first week of July, and some of that cotton has been destroyed,” he says.
Compared to last year's average yield of 749 pounds per acre, Alabama cotton producers are expected to harvest about 430 pounds per acre this year, says Monks, and this forecast doesn't include the cotton that was destroyed.
“Whenever we have an average yield of less than a bale per acre, that means we'll have a few fields that'll go 600 to 700 pounds, but a lot of fields will go less than that — we have a lot of 300-pound cotton,” he says.
Low yields, says Monks, are usually accompanied by low quality. “In a year like this one, with an early boll set, we'll more than likely see high micronaire and short staple,” he says.
Steady rainfall was finally being seen in parts of east-central Alabama by mid-August. “With these showers coming through, the general impression is that the drought is over. Unfortunately, we needed the rain earlier in the season. Cotton starts to perk up whenever we get rain, and it looks better. But there aren't a lot of blooms on it because it bloomed during the latter part of July. Some of this cotton has cut out two times this season,” he says.
Cotton began opening in north Alabama during the last week of July, which is about a month early for those growers, says Monks.
“If conditions continue to stay dry, this will be a quick crop. It's mid-August, and we have 30 to 50 percent of the cotton in some parts of southwest Alabama that already is opened.”
With adequate rainfall, says Monks, some mid-season varieties planted in the state still could have some potential.
One of the few positive things that can be said about the 2006 cotton year in Alabama is that insect numbers have been low to non-existent in most of the state's fields and across most species of insects, says Ron Smith, Auburn University Extension entomologist.
“Despite the low insect pressure, I think we have learned a few things this year,” says Smith. “We conduct thrips tests in Prattville every year, and it was an exceptional year for thrips because pressure was so heavy during a certain window. It appeared that when the cotton was most susceptible, the thrips moved from the wild host plants and into the field. No matter what we used as a treatment, it didn't look good. The best thrips treatment we had this year was where we sprayed three times with Orthene in a timely manner.”
If cotton is at this susceptible stage when the primary migration of thrips from wild host plants occurs, then nothing will work very well, he says. “They've got to feed a little bit before they can be killed. If you have a lot of thrips feeding a little bit, then you get some cosmetic damage in all of the better treatments, and that's what happened this year. My point is, there's a window during which cotton is more susceptible to thrips. And at that time, with a mass migration, you'll probably need some supplemental treatments in some years,” says Smith.
Plant bugs were almost non-existent in Alabama cotton this year, perhaps with the exception of the Tennessee Valley, he says. Aphids lasted three weeks to a month longer than normal, he adds.
“The naturally occurring fungus that usually takes out aphids needs humidity and moisture to spread and to show itself. That did not happen this year. Instead of aphids crashing in the first 10 days of July, they crashed the last 10 days of July. We made a lot more foliar sprays for aphids this year than we normally make. We probably made more foliar sprays for aphids this year than for any other insect pest. We now have good chemistry, and most folks were pleased with what they saw,” says Smith.
The normal time to see a heavy flight of bollworms, he says, is about July 20. But that was at the peak of Alabama's drought this year, and the flight never occurred.
“But you didn't have to go too far to see the opposite. In southwest Georgia, including Dawson, Albany and Camilla, growers saw heavy pressure during that window. It was at a level to where the Bollgard cotton didn't hold, and they had to make multiple oversprays to take out the worms.
“Last year, the pyrethroid chemistry didn't work in that area, and they had up to 10-percent boll damage. Bollworms were escaping Bt cotton. That didn't happen as bad this year. The resistance level may have dropped back some this year, but it's a problem just waiting to happen on a much larger scale. That is, the effectiveness of pyrethroids on bollworms.”
Stinkbugs, says Smith, also were difficult to find in Alabama cotton this year. “Stinkbugs have become the No. 1 pest of cotton in this part of the country. But we didn't know that heat and drought would take its toll on the pest. If that didn't do it, then I'm not sure what did.
“We learned one thing about stinkbugs this year — they're not the same every year. If you don't have a scout or a consultant, the trend has been to spray for stinkbugs the third, fifth and seventh week of bloom. This year, you would have wasted more money than a scout or a consultant would have cost you by spraying on that schedule. The sprays would have been of little benefit.”