Coast to coast across the Cotton Belt, weather is the first thing farmers or specialists mention when asked how the crop is progressing. That's understandable, since weather conditions can trump any or all decisions producers make during the season.
"Cotton is probably the best looking crop we have now", says Dan Kournegay, who also farms sweetpotatoes, tobacco, soybeans, wheat, corn and vegetables with his father, Danny, near Princeton, North Carolina. "The weather was cool and wet earlier in the spring but with no more acreage than we planted this year, we were able to delay our planting a bit and still get it all in."
In the last three seasons, the Kournegays have gone from 2,600 acres of cotton to 1,100 acres, and this year to just 500 acres. Cutbacks on cotton acreage are not atypical here, notes N.C. State University extension cotton specialist Keith Edmisten, especially this year.
"With the cool weather - and with the attractive price of soybeans - some of our people didn't plant quite as much cotton as they might have done otherwise," Edmisten notes.
The early cool weather slowed the crop down a little, but it was followed by a spell of warm weather that let the crop catch up again. Thrips were a problem, but they are nearly every year in North Carolina and Virginia, Edmisten notes.
"We probably had more hail damage this year than normal," he says, noting he received calls on that account from troubled farmers in various counties. "That is not something that hits everyone but when you have thunderstorms like we had in late May or early June it is very common to have a half-mile wide hailstorm go through an area. It can be pretty devastating to the people that get it."
Now the rains and hail have given way to spreading dry conditions, but even that can have a silver lining, Edmisten says. "In general, if it is not too severe, I think a dry spell can be a positive for cotton. It forces roots down deeper. Hopefully, that means as we get into July we'll have a really good root system to help us support a good boll load."
The Kournegays are probably more concerned about another kind of dry spell, lagging prices.
"In my opinion, cotton is not really competitive with corn or soybeans right now," Dan says. "Or, let me put it this way, we need to make thousand pound yields for cotton to be competitive. And that is a stretch on our soils."
Afternoon showers boost North Alabama
Less cotton and more corn across the Southeast erodes an observer's point of reference, but generally speaking the small cotton plants next to the towering corn were off to a healthy start in mid-June.
"From what I've seen and heard, North Alabama looks pretty good for the most part," Alabama Extension cotton specialist Dale Monks reports. "From about Clanton south, in central Alabama and the southeast, the Wiregrass area, we've been under near drought conditions until the last few days. It's small. It's slow getting on."
With the Southeast Climate Consortium forecasting a continually weakening La Nina, which means more rain for the area, Monks can only hope that's one weather source that's right.
"It's been more like what I call 'old-time normal', where you're getting scattered showers most afternoons," Monks says. "If we can keep getting these afternoon showers, I think we'll be alright."
Georgia Extension cotton economist Don Shurley was pleasantly surprised by crop conditions as he traveled the drought-stricken state in June.
"Cotton looks surprisingly okay for now, given how dry it has been so far this season," Shurley says.
Farther north the weather has been wetter but cooler, which brings an entirely different set of concerns, but, again, the crop seems to be holding its own in Tennessee.
"The cotton looks pretty good considering the cool, wet planting season that we had," Tennessee Extension plant pathologist Melvin Newman says.
Cotton cut 25% in Mid-South
Spring rains and cool temperatures added to the problems facing reduced cotton acreage in the Mid-South, where good wheat, corn and soybean prices took acres away. Cotton farmers in the area were expected to plant some 25.5% fewer acres than in 2007.
Frequent rains delayed planting in much of the Mid-South. In Tennessee, for example, the lateness of planting forced some farmers to go with soybeans instead of cotton, says Chris Main, University of Tennessee Extension cotton specialist.
In Mississippi, the cotton was finally in the ground just after mid-June, says Darrin Dodds, Mississippi State University Extension cotton specialist. As of June 16, only 14% of the cotton was squaring, compared with 47% last year and the five-year average of 40%.
Tennessee planted its entire crop in a seven-day period, Main says. "We've got a lot of cotton at the same stage. It could give us troubles later in the season." Main was expecting to see the first blooms a week after the Fourth of July in Tennessee.
In Mississippi, dry weather was beginning to take a toll on the crop. "It's amazing how quickly things can turn," Dodds says. "We have gone from too wet to too dry in many areas, especially the Delta."
Merciless heat, winds take toll in Texas
Texas was supposed to produce about half of the nation's 2008-crop cotton. But while everything went almost perfect with 2007 growing conditions, this season got off to just the opposite start.
On the High Plains, day after day of 100-plus degree temperatures and raging, relentless wind during June made for a mighty rough start for the region's 2008 cotton crop, and left prospects for a repeat performance of 2007 quite unlikely.
When it was too late to continue with planting or replanting cotton, the end of the planting period—generally about June 5 to June 10 on the High Plains—was just terrible.
"The end of the 2008 planting season arrived on the heels of conditions more reminiscent of being trapped in a blast furnace than 'springtime' in West Texas," laments Shawn Wade of Plains Cotton Growers, Inc., in Lubbock.
Wade notes it's hardly surprising that dryland cotton fields in every part of the region were hardest hit. Nevertheless, irrigated cotton ground didn't go unscathed as blowing sand from dryland corners of fields –and from neighboring fields—beat up on tender, young cotton plants.
He says young cotton was struggling just to survive.
At times during June, the National Weather Service's Pan Evaporation rate data showed evaporation rates exceeded more than 1-inch per day on several occasions.
Down below the vast High Plains region, the Rolling Plains has a longer growing season and generally can plant cotton until about June 20 in most counties. But the Rolling Plains also was blasted by oven-hot winds and temperatures that had climbed to 108 degrees in the Quanah and Crowell area, and 110 degrees at Childress by June.
Variable conditions in California
The 2008 season has given California growers cool, dry weather at the beginning, one fairly severe hot and windy spell, followed by repeated periods with cooler and quite windy weather. The result is a range of situations in early June.
There are some mid- to late-March plantings in the southern San Juaquin Valley, that look pretty good, with acceptable progress in square development. April and even early May plantings in mid and northern SJV represent a broader range of conditions in terms of stand losses, variability in plant populations within and between fields, apparent leaf damage from thrips and/or wind damage, plant vigor and progress toward squaring and bloom. Something California farmers should keep in mind is that there is a tendency to think that if plantings are two to even three weeks later than what they are used to at this time of year, first and peak bloom will likewise be late by that same time frame. Yield potentials will also be off dramatically. However, be on the lookout to see if a weather warm-up and first irrigations improve plant vigor and progress.
Kern and Fresno County sites showed:
• Generally shorter plants, lower height/node ratios than typical for this time of year (some fields).
• More leaf and terminal damage consistent with thrips injury in the later plantings, with some moderately severe damage.
• Some losses of small plants to seedling disease in patchy areas of fields, primarily Rhizoctonia. In some fields, however, even plants with low height/node ratios were starting to show better leaf expansion and some longer internodes at the terminal, hopefully indicating that vegetative growth rates were starting to improve (with warming weather, irrigations, nitrogen applications of the past week or two).
While some earlier south and central SJV plantings are moving along, it looks like many later fields won't have blooms present until late-June or even early July. During square development and with the threats of limited water, it will be useful to continue with some plant mapping and consistent monitoring of pests and beneficials.
Farm Progress cotton state editors, J.T. Smith, Cecil Yancy, Pam Golden, Len Richardson and Richard Davis contributed to this article.