Gulf storms batter Alabama cotton

Cotton fields near Alabama's Gulf Coast were battered severely by Hurricane Isidore, and Extension specialists agree that much of the region's crop has suffered extensive damage.

“I visited a number of cotton fields in Mobile County within days of Isidore's passing through,” says Jim Todd, Mobile County Extension coordinator. “In Mobile County, we were looking for a good harvest. But, because of Isidore, farmers have had anywhere from 60 to 250 pounds of cotton per acre blown to the ground.”

Last year, Mobile County farmers averaged almost 800 pounds of cotton per acre.

Farms in Baldwin, Escambia and Monroe counties also received extensive storm damage.

“It appears that extensive damage already has occurred, and the stage is set for even more damage to result from Isidore indirectly, as subsequent weather events unfold to aggravate the existing situation,” says Dale Monks, Extension cotton specialist.

The damage was generally, but not universally more severe nearer the Coast, says Bob Goodman, Extension economist.

“However, one of the most severely damaged fields was in Monroe County, at the northern limit of the damage area,” says Goodman. “We observed that the earlier fields suffered the most immediate damage. Damage levels to later fields with more unopened bolls could, due to additional severe weather, ultimately exceed that level of economic impact. Damage was generally more severe in fields with higher pre-storm yield potential.”

The damage observed was not typical of hurricane damage to open cotton. Winds were not strong enough to completely strip the open cotton from the plants or to dismantle modules.

Goodman says closer examination revealed moderate to severe damage in almost every field the Extension professionals visited.

Current Isidore damage to early cotton (characterized by mostly open bolls) was typically a combination of wind damage and boll rot. “In some fields, many locks were on the ground with seeds sprouting. Some sprouting of cottonseed was evident in locks still on the plant,” says Monks. “Extensive boll rot was already evident in many fields, especially fields that originally had high yield potential.”

Goodman says potential Isidore damage to early cotton will be a result of actual additional cotton lost from bolls and additional boll rot. It is likely that cotton lint still marginally attached to the plant will fall before it can be harvested.

He anticipates additional boll rot will occur due to packing of lodged plants and lack of air circulation. Harvesting losses, due to tangling of the plants from swirling winds, will be excessive as picker headers comb through the tangled rows.

“Farmers are going to have quality losses from boll rot and cottonseed sprouting. Additional quality losses could occur due to plant regrowth,” says Goodman. “Those kinds of quality losses are going to cost farmers money because their cotton won't command the same prices as high quality cotton. Also, the value of cottonseed will be significantly lower and cottonseed will be lighter.”

Current Isidore damage to later cotton (characterized by few open bolls at the time of the storm) consists of considerable defoliation and twisting of the plants due to swirling winds. As a result of the heavy, unopened bolls, especially in the top of the plant, the twisting and swaying motion of the plants in the wind resulted in a loss of soil support and excessive lodging.

Monks says resulting root damage and leaf area loss will hinder further development of these bolls. Even though most of these bolls eventually will open, both quality and quantity of lint produced will be affected. Further damage to these later plants may result from additional rain events as more bolls are opened.

The physical abuse these plants received will result in production of stress hormones in the plant, accelerating further leaf loss and boll cracking, says Monks. Scarring of boll tissue likely will result in excessive boll rot.

Goodman says another complicating factor in assessing the damage is the impact Isidore will have on harvest timeliness. “As a direct result of this storm, all of the cotton in these counties is ready or will soon be ready to be defoliated and harvested,” says Goodman. “There is not the capacity to harvest, to transport or to gin all of this crop before the weather causes further quality losses. Even without another storm, we are going to see significant losses in quantity and quality of the crop because farmers just will not be able to get it picked and to gins in a timely fashion.”

Sources of cotton storm losses

  1. Cotton locks blown from plant to ground.

  2. Existing boll rot even on erect plants.

  3. Twisting and lodging of plants resulting in harvest losses as pickers comb fields.

  4. Lack of air circulation in lodged plants results in even more boll rot.

  5. Loss of value due to lint quality problems directly resulting from storm damage — micronaire reduction from immature, undeveloped bolls; staple length from boll rot and fiber deterioration; bark from harvesting through tangled plants; other losses including stain from sprouted seeds

  6. Losses from lost cottonseed, sprouted cottonseed and/or light cottonseed due to immaturity.

  7. Losses attributable to harvest delay.

  8. Losses due to excessive defoliation expenses from lodged canopies needing to be treated twice.

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