Cotton has always been regarded as a relatively drought-tolerant crop, but the trick is in getting it planted and getting a stand, and that has been a challenge this year for producers in the lower Southeast.
“We’re a little over 80-percent planted, but growers in central and south Alabama have stopped planting both cotton and peanuts and the near-term forecast doesn’t look promising,” said Auburn University Extension Cotton Specialist Dale Monks in late May. “We were in a field the other day, and we had to go down 8 or 9 inches to find any moisture. Some of our growers can’t pull their strip-till rigs through the field because the ground is so hard,” says Monks.
The future of Alabama’s cotton crop is uncertain, he says. “I suppose anything’s possible. We have some growers who double-crop cotton and carry their planting out to mid-June, following a grain crop with cotton,” he says.
But if the state’s growers do make a crop, they’ll have to get rain, says Monks.
“I’d estimate that only about 15 percent of our cotton in central and south Alabama is irrigated. We just don’t have the underground aquifers to sustain irrigation — all we can do is to hope for rain. The drought is affecting all of Alabama’s agriculture. We used all of our hay last season, and there’s nothing left for the cows to eat,” he says.
Cotton producers in Georgia have more irrigation than their counterparts in Alabama, but planting was still being delayed by the extremely dry conditions.
“By the last week in May, we had planted about 54 percent of our expected acreage of 1 to 1.2 million acres of cotton,” says Steve M. Brown, University of Georgia Extension cotton specialist. “I’d expect we may end up planting about 60 to 65 percent of our total estimated crop. A lot of cotton has been dusted into dry soil. It’s a legitimate practice but it’s also a risk.”
Cotton producers with irrigation have watered three or four times just to get a stand, and large acreages still had not been planted by the May 31 deadline, says Brown. “Farmers have some tough decisions to make about when to irrigate, and for some, it’s a question of availability with many of the ponds and streams drying up.
“We rarely see significant stress beyond the six to seven-leaf stage. We need to make sure we water before we see the plant stress. We know that once we totally deplete the subsoil profile, it’s impossible to catch up, or it’ll at least take some time. Flowering and boll fill are most important. If we’re limited on when we can water, we might want to look at irrigating during the second or third week of bloom and then watering again 10 days later, and let that be it,” he says.
Some Georgia cotton growers who use strip and conventional-tillage haven’t been able to run a subsoil shank because the ground is so hard, says Brown.
“This drought has been a challenge, and we hope it’s a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. We remember that we made a late crop last year. And some of our growers are comparing this year to 1954. But looking back at the data, we were able to get the crop up to a stand and established in 1954, and we’re far from that now. At this point, it’s just important that we get a stand. Things could get worse before they get better, because temperatures will get warmer as we get later into the summer months,” he says.
Unless weather patterns change significantly and soon, says Brown, the current drought threatens the feasibility of dryland cotton production in many areas and the potential profitability of irrigated production in most of the state.
May 31 marked the final planting date for full coverage for crop insurance purposes, he says. A grower who plants after May 31 diminishes his purchased level of coverage at a rate of 1 percent per day. If planted past June 15, coverage for cotton declines to 50 percent of a grower’s insured level.
“Assuming the seed is in the ground for at least 15 days, a grower can ask his insurance adjustor to inspect the crop eight days after the last day of the late planting period. That is, eight days after June 15, which is June 23. If no cotton is present on that date, the crop can be “zeroed out” and the claim finalized. If a settlement is made, any crop that emerges thereafter must be destroyed. If a crop is abandoned and counted as ZERO, a zero is calculated into a grower’s production history for his future yield basis,” says Brown.
A farmer who has a proper “prevented planting” claim is not compelled to plant after May 31, he adds. But claims had to have been filed within 72 hours after the May 31 deadline. Coverage for prevented planting is reduced to 50 percent of the purchased insurance level. If acreage is not planted due to prevented planting conditions, there is no effect on production history and yield basis.
There are many rules and regulations regarding crop insurance, says Brown, and growers should consult with crop insurance representatives to be sure about specific decisions. It is important to document planting practices, seed purchases, weather and other factors, he says.
South Georgia cotton growers, says Brown, have successfully produced cotton planted over a wide window, ranging from early April to the first few days in June. But profitable production for June-planted cotton requires superb management and irrigation or timely rainfall, he says, and the last of these seems improbable at the present time.
“Late planting compresses the season and necessitates there be no delays or interruptions in emergence, growth, fruiting or maturity,” he says. “The life cycle of cotton requires certain heat unit accumulations and days between various phases of growth. The approximate time from emergence to squaring is 35 days, from squaring to bloom is 21 days, and from bloom to open boll is 50 days. Normal production involves a bloom period of at least four weeks. These approximations reflect patterns consistent with favorable growing conditions, not those plagued with serious drought/heat stress.”
As the drought persists, the possibility of making a dryland crop diminishes, says Brown. From the standpoint of production — beyond regulations of the crop insurance program — the real issue in non-irrigated fields is not when the crop is planted but when it emerges. “It is impractical to attempt to make a crop past certain dates,” he says. “Using the data for the intervals required from emergence to bloom, adding the needed four-week bloom period, and factoring in the historical number for the last effective flowering date as the first week of September, cotton that emerges after June 15 to 20 has minimal chance for success. Present soil moisture conditions and short-term weather forecasts amplify that position. Therefore, the conclusion: It’s inadvisable for growers to attempt to make a crop with cotton that emerges after June 15 to 20.”
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