The East-Central Alabama Cotton/Peanut Tour celebrated its 30th anniversary this year, and many of those participating agreed this was the hottest, driest growing season they could remember.
“This has been a different kind of year,” says Jeff Clary, an Extension crops consultant, “Just when we think we've got it all figured out — all the special stuff to make three bales — we have a year like this.”
The best part of the state's cotton crop is in southwest Alabama, says Dale Monks, Auburn University Extension cotton specialist. “The irrigated cotton and irrigated corn there look good, but the dryland crops are suffering. Last year's record-setting drought is only eclipsed by this year's record-setting drought,” he says.
For two consecutive years, most of the state has suffered, says Monks, and it will leave a lot of growers in dire straits. “There's a good reason why in a lot of areas of Alabama, growers don't normally plant dryland corn — they're finding out why again this year,” he says.
Even in some irrigated fields, says Monks, the cotton plants haven't been able to overcome two weeks of 100-degree-plus temperatures.
“Not only is the cotton plant shedding its squares, but midway on the plant and up, smaller squares and flowers are shedding before they have a chance to set. We're shedding a lot of thumb-sized bolls and down,” he says.
“My feeling is that the crop is running early in most of the state,” says Monks. “It was behind by about two or three weeks earlier in the season. Some of our cotton that was planted in early May didn't come up until the middle of June. It doesn't take a big drought — which this one is — to turn a mid-season variety into an early season variety. “We've simply run out of time on blooming and making bolls. With the high temperatures, even the irrigated growers haven't been able to keep up — it's causing an early crop. This cotton goes from just cracking to 60 or 80-percent open bolls in just a few days — it's a lot faster than normal,” he says.
“This drought is significant,” says Bob Goodman, Auburn University Extension economist. “There's talk about the accuracy of the USDA's cotton yield estimate for Alabama — that maybe they've over-estimated. They have it at about 650 pounds per acre and that's ridiculous. There's no doubt we'll need some tremendous, heroic disaster assistance this winter. You should all let your senators and representatives know there's a train wreck coming, and it's going to be a bad one.”
Looking at the national drought map, the exceptional area is mostly in Alabama, says Goodman. “There's a little in Georgia, but they can irrigate. From here on out, if you're not going to make your insurance yield, every pound of cotton you make that improves your yield is not going in your pocket — it's going in the pocket of the insurance.
“If you're going to make 400 pounds, and you go out there with some heroic measures and raise that yield to 450 pounds per acre, you'll end up with the same payment, but the insurance company will benefit,” he says.
If cotton growers have a situation where they're worried about next year, and they have a lot of money invested in some of their fields in terms of fertilizer, they should consider a winter crop, advises Goodman.
“You're probably not going to be able to take advantage of that fertilizer with this cotton crop, so there will be fertility left out in those fields,” he says. “You might want to explore the possibility of tying up that land this fall with a winter crop. Wheat is looking very good for next year.”
Commodity prices generally appear to be in good shape, says Goodman. “The Fed just eased the discount rate by one quarter percent and bailed the sub-prime mortgage industry out of a hole. We're hearing a lot of talk about how much a new farm bill will cost, but with what that bailout cost, we could have a new farm bill every week.
“But the move by the Feds did turn around the stock market, and in turn the cotton and corn markets. Prices are firm and strong. I don't think there's a weakness as a matter of demand. If we have trouble in the stock market, we'll have trouble in the commodities market. Demand is good, and as long as the economy remains healthy, I don't think we have a lot to worry about with prices from here on out,” he says.