Alabama cotton crop needs bad weather

Alabama cotton producers, seeing their best yield potential since 1996, are hoping for drier weather conditions as the crop enters the final home stretch. Unusually heavy rainfall in early September damaged cotton fields across north Alabama's Tennessee Valley. Most growers in Alabama, however, still are optimistic about the 2001 crop, says Dale Monks, Auburn University Extension cotton specialist.

“We haven't seen a severe drought this year — our cotton didn't cut out in June, and we didn't give up on the crop in July. For the most part, this crop has grown as it should have,” said Monks at the recent Central Alabama Cotton Field Day in Prattville.

A portion of the Alabama cotton crop is about two weeks behind schedule due to dry conditions earlier in the season, says Monks.

“We're looking at our best yield potential since 1996, but it's difficult to predict what the yields might be. We initially thought we would make a statewide average yield of 700 pounds per acre. But we've backed off that estimate somewhat since we received the heavy rainfall in August and the first part of September. We're still hoping for between 650 and 700 pounds per acre,” says the agronomist.

Producers in north Alabama are most concerned about the effects of excessive rainfall on the crop, notes Monks. “In reviewing the rainfall data from 1996 compared to this year, we see that Belle Mina in north Alabama received slightly more than one inch of rain in 1996 during late August and early September, and they received this one inch over the span of 10 rain days. This year, during the same period, Belle Mina received six inches of rain in 12 rain days.

“Rain days are important as the cotton begins to crack open. The wetness of the foliage and the ground could determine the amount of boll rot. Just because it rains six inches at one time doesn't necessarily mean that boll rot will increase. The amount of boll rot will be determined by how many days the cotton plant and the ground remain wet.”

Another problem for Alabama producers, especially in the central and southern regions of the state, is leafspot diseases, adds Monks. “Leafspot diseases are moving in late on this crop. The boll load is heavy, and a lot of fields are going down due to leafspot diseases. We're also seeing a lot of fusarium in the fields.”

In addition, growers are seeing seed sprouting in the cotton bolls, he says. “Wet, warm weather is a perfect environment for cotton seed to germinate, and there's not much we can do about it. It's not the end of the world to see that cotton seed sprouting, but it'll have some effect on the quality of the crop.”

Just a few weeks ago, cotton growers in north Alabama's Lauderdale County were talking about yields exceeding two bales an acre — a fact largely attributed to ample rainfall throughout the growing season. But unusually heavy rainfall during the first weekend in September may have dashed these hopes, at least among producers farming near the west Lauderdale County community of Oakland. Producers in the area received more than six inches of rainfall over the Labor Day weekend, reducing most cotton bolls to soggy sponges.

“One farmer reported that when you squeeze the bolls, they're mushy,” says Ronny Lane, Lauderdale County Extension coordinator. “That doesn't sound good.”

Ironically, what cotton producers fervently hoped and prayed for last year during one of the worst droughts on record has turned out to be too much of a good thing this year.

Rainfall, in critically short supply last year, has returned in ample amounts this year — too ample, as far as some growers are concerned.

While conditions have remained too wet for some producers to make a close inspection, some west Lauderdale farmers already have braced for the worst.

“I talked with one producer who says if it's as bad as he thinks it is, he's not even going to bother cranking his harvester,” Lane says.

Despite the bad turn of events in west Lauderdale County, cotton experts farther east in Limestone and Madison counties are still upbeat.

“The good news is that most of our cotton bolls weren't opening yet when the rains came,” said Charles Burmester, an area Extension cotton agronomist based at Belle Mina. “On the other hand, while the bolls were not opened entirely, they were opened enough to let in moisture, and as long as the rains continue, this moisture will sit in the bolls and threaten boll rot.”

Burmester also expects the moisture will cause some staining in cotton fiber — a factor that will affect grading and, ultimately, prices. Nevertheless, if rain slacks off, Burmester believes boll-rot problems will decrease.

Even so, the unusually heavy rainfall has been surprising, he says, especially considering that only last year, many producers were suffering from a chronic lack of moisture.

“September usually is a dry month, averaging about three inches of rainfall the entire month,” he says. “We got a little over three inches during Labor Day weekend, which means that we got a whole month's share of rainfall in only a couple of days.”

“We don't want this heavy rain for much longer,” he says. While conceding boll rot is always a risk late in the season following heavy rain, Limestone County Extension Coordinator Curtis Grissom is also expecting a good crop despite excessive rainfall. But, like Burmester, he's hoping dry weather will return quickly. Cotton defoliation also should help.

“What we need now is more dry air circulating around the cotton bolls,” Grissom says. “With defoliation and enough dry weather, the problems associated with boll rot will drop off.

Mark Hall, Grissom's counterpart in neighboring Madison County, remains equally upbeat.

Excellent weather conditions throughout most of the growing season, coupled with minimal pest problems will lead to good yields, despite the drenching rains, he believes.

“True, if it continues raining through September and October, the bolls will rot and we'll have problems, but for now, things look good,” Hall says.

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