The biggest and most talked about topic concerning cotton in 2001 was sub-40-cent prices. However, a discussion of possible changes in these prices and the associated government programs is better left to economists.
Despite what weather folks call the lingering drought, the Georgia Agriculture Statistics Service (GASS) forecasts, as of Aug. 10, that Georgia cotton farmers will harvest 1.49 million acres of the 1.5 million acres planted. In addition, the GASS estimates that yield per harvested acre will average 680 pounds.
All this adds up to 89 pounds more lint being harvested from 140,000 more acres than in 2000. This is a definite improvement over the numbers from last year (if only the same could be said for price).
As the yield and harvested acreage estimates suggest, the weather for 2001 was more favorable than what had been forecast in the spring. There were some timely rains throughout the season, with our first real glimpse of the persisting drought coming in late July and early August.
As a general observation across the state, it appears that the irrigated acres held up quite well. Also, once defoliation began, the dryland crop looked much better than expected, especially in those areas of the state that received scattered showers late in the season. There were areas of the state though, most notably around Burke County, that remained dry for much of the year.
Tropical Storm Gabrielle missed Georgia — much to the relief of some and to the dismay of others. Gabrielle came at a time in which early-planted fields were defoliated and late-planted fields could have used a good rain.
In 2000, more than 48 percent of the Georgia crop was planted to varieties that contained the Bt gene. In 2001, less than 43 percent of Georgia's acreage contained the Bt gene. This reduction in Bt acreage was no doubt in part due to the lower insect pressures observed in 2000, yet the economics of planting Bt cotton also played an important role. Overall, compared to 2000, fewer acres were planted to non-transgenic varieties, and significantly more acres were planted to Roundup Ready varieties.
Insect pressure once again was variable, ranging from light to moderate for most of the state throughout 2001. Several areas required sprays for tobacco budworms and corn earworms. However, other areas required no treatment at all. This serves as a good impetus for producers to evaluate the technology they use in their fields. While Roundup Ready and Bt cottons are undeniably convenient, these technologies also are costly. In these times of depressed prices, it behooves a producer to match technology with need.
Stinkbugs also were an erratic pest requiring treatment in some areas. Stinkbugs will continue to be an important pest as long as Bt cotton is planted and we maintain a low spray environment.
Around Tifton, the beginnings of an outbreak of silverleaf whitefly were observed in August. But contrary to the past two seasons, they did not widely establish and did not cause economic damage.
There are many marketing strategies a producer can exercise to improve the price received for cotton. Producers also have a great deal of control over the inputs they choose to make to a crop and the inputs they choose to leave out. These input decisions can have a dramatic impact on the productivity and profitability of the crop.
One of the easiest things a producer can perform is a soil test and follow the subsequent recommendations.
Soil pH has a profound effect on the productivity of cotton. Low soil pH can severely stunt cotton and all but eliminate yield, and a good liming program will more than pay for itself. Low soil pH reduced yields in several fields this year.
In addition, Georgia has more than its share of nematodes, which also can be detected by soil tests. These soil-borne root-feeding creatures also robbed yields in many fields this year. Soil tests also supply recommendations for nitrogen fertilization rates.
Cutting nitrogen rates was very appealing during the early season this year due to high prices. In a year with less than optimal rainfall, producers can get away with this practice. Yet in a year with sufficient rainfall such as 2001, nitrogen quickly can become a limiting factor.
Also, nitrogen is one of those inputs where more is not always better. A lush canopy certainly looks good during the year, but remember we cannot sell the leaves.
Other practices that are either being experimented with or implemented by producers to combat low prices include conservation-tillage and skip-row production. Conservation-tillage practices such as strip-till are becoming more popular with growers. Strip-till has the potential to reduce production costs by eliminating certain tillage procedures.
In addition, many growers say they spend less time in the field allowing for more time to be spent on other endeavors.
Skip-row production also received some renewed attention. This practice may not necessarily increase yields, but it does have the potential to increase the profit margin through a reduction in seed, technology and in-furrow insecticide costs, as well as increased picker efficiency.