Georgia's 2002 cotton crop is best forgotten

The year 2002 long will be remembered by most Georgia cotton producers, but for all the wrong reasons. “Many of our growers went from having a fairly decent crop to being in a situation of giving up on the crop. It was not a good year — across the board,” says Phil Jost, University of Georgia Extension agronomist.

Weather conditions throughout the growing season, poor harvesting conditions and a resurgence of insect pressure all helped to characterize the 2002 production year, Jost said at the recent Georgia Cotton Production Workshop held in Tifton.

Statistically speaking, Georgia's cotton production is expected to total 1.75 million bales which is 470,000 bales less than the 2001 production. Drought in some areas during the summer initially hurt the crop, and wet conditions through the fall caused cotton to deteriorate and hindered harvesting.

Georgia's acreage for harvest this year is pegged at 1.43 million acres, and this may be on the high side, says Jost. The final yield calculates to 587 pounds per harvested acre. “That could still be a little high. There's a lot of cotton being mowed down in southeast Georgia,” he says.

Turning to varieties planted, Georgia growers continue to rely heavily on Roundup Ready technology, notes Jost. A breakdown of the top 10 varieties planted in the state this past year shows that 43.3 percent of the acres were planted in Bollgard/Roundup Ready stacked gene varieties. Another 43 percent of the acres were planted in Roundup Ready varieties, while about 4.5 percent were planted in Bollgard Bt varieties. Only 8.3 percent of the state's crop was planted in conventional varieties.

Growers' continued reliance on Roundup Ready cotton has caused predictable shifts in weed spectrums. In extreme south Georgia, tropical spiderwort has proliferated, frustrating growers and scientists as they search for effective, economical control options.

“But even with the year we had, we actually are showing an increase in yield compared to last year in some locations. And, we're seeing yields of at least the same or a little less in other areas. Considering our current conditions, this may be a promising sign. Maybe we've found some varieties out there that it'll make some improvements for us in terms of yield,” says the agronomist.

Tobacco budworm and corn earworm pressure was intense in Georgia in 2002 for the first time in several years, with the pressure being more severe in some areas than others.

Some of the state's conventional cotton required as many as six to nine sprays this past year. The occurrence of increased worm pressure and growing evidence of pyrethroid resistance in tobacco budworm caused many growers in these areas to rethink the importance and value of Bt cotton. It's likely, says Jost, that more Bt varieties will be planted in 2003.

Adverse weather conditions toward the end of the growing season and throughout harvest significantly influenced Georgia's fiber quality this past year, says Jost.

“Our fiber length, as in previous years, continues to be an issue. During the weeks of the harvest season, it was a struggle to get any of our averages above 34. Below 34 puts us in the discount range. Short staple continues to be a problem for our growers.

“We're now averaging right at 34. In comparing this with past years, this is less than the past two years, and it's no where near where we were in the early 1990s. About 30 percent of all cotton in Georgia now is coming in as short staple.”

Average micronaire is at about 4.9, with about 40 percent of the crop being penalized for high micronaire. “We can attribute a lot of these quality problems to weather conditions during 2002. We saw a lot of rainfall and tropical storms late in the season, and we had trouble getting the crop out of the field.”

Harvest progress was running about 18 percentage points behind the five-year average in mid-December, reports Jost. “Rainfall averages for the entire year were below the three-year average, but we got a lot of rainfall at the end of the season. Growers in east Georgia were running from behind in terms of rainfall early in the year. When the few bolls that were in the fields began opening, the rains came, creating a rough situation.”

Late-season rainfall can have several effects on fiber quality, he says. “It can affect uniformity, color and fiber strength. We saw a lot of spotted cotton this past year, with only 63 percent of the crop grading 41 or better. And more bales are being deducted for fiber strength, primarily due to poor weather conditions during harvest. Whenever you put high micronaire, poor color and poor strength together, it doesn't make for a pretty situation.”

Three things, says Jost, can affect fiber length in cotton — variety, temperature and water. “Comparing the moisture in the official variety trial against the longest fibers produced tells us that we're starting off a little behind the eight-ball with currently available varieties.”

Statistics from 2001 show that as rainfall decreases in locations across Georgia, the percent of short fiber increases. And, as rainfall increases throughout the season, the percent of short staple decreases.

“So what can we do about the fiber length issue? variety selection is a place to start. Irrigation may be another possibility. Any grower knows that irrigating cotton is a tough challenge.”

In conclusion, Jost says that as Georgia's cotton acreage has increased over the years, more growers are planting cotton after cotton. “As a result, we saw a lot of fields this past year with nematode problems. We have to pay more attention to that.”

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