In mid-October, pickers are rolling through Delta cotton fields. On his way to northeast Arkansas’ Mississippi County, Bill Robertson reflects on the 2017 growing season and harvest so far.
“I’m hearing some really good yields and some that aren’t very good,” says the Arkansas Extension cotton specialist. “I think our average will be better than NASS’ prediction. They have us coming in with an average crop.
“Our early-planted fields are all over the place. We had two large planting windows for the state this year. That’s kind of strange because we usually plant everything within a 10- to 15-day window.”
This year, “we had a window around mid-April and another mid- to late-May. I planted some of my plots around April 17.”
Down in south Arkansas, the weather actually turned off a bit on the dry side. Then, a tropical storm came through Memphis and “saved the day for a lot of the later cotton planted in the northern half of the state. For some, that rain came at just the right time. It was a tad late for our early-planted cotton.
“Then again, I don’t think we planted all the cotton acres that were planned last winter. I certainly didn’t get all the plots planted that I aimed for – the time in May just ran out.”
Robertson has talked to growers bringing in yields from 900 to 1,000 pounds. “Then, in southeast Arkansas – Desha, Ashley counties – some consultants are saying their cotton is averaging 1,400 pounds. There’s some really good cotton in Jefferson County, more around Marianna.
“That’s good news because some of the early cotton we picked around there honestly didn’t do as well as I’d hoped. It looked like it’d pick 1,500 pounds and picked 1,250 to 1,300 pounds. That 1,300 pounds sure isn’t bad but when you’re expecting 1,500, it’s a bit disappointing. You know, there were a ton of bolls but when you got down into the plants, you could see some bolls with pollination issues and the like.
“I was a little jealous of the fields I’ve seen with nice, big, fluffy bolls from the top of the plant to the bottom. For instance, I was in Clay County this morning and some farmers in some fields there were averaging one round bale per acre. That’s a little over four bales per acre.”
There’s really no one overriding storyline for this growing season, says Robertson. “Everyone pretty much got the same temperatures, the same sunshine. Some of the better cotton got more timely rains, had a little more luck. Of course, one of the things that really puts a cap on cotton is for the ground to get a little dry, you water and then a rain rolls through. That really kills the plants’ momentum.”
What about comparisons of the Xtend and non-dicamba varieties?
“The non-dicamba varieties appear to be doing just fine. I don’t think we had many, if any, issues with dicamba drift in cotton that’s going to impact yield.
“As for varieties, some of the (Stoneville) 4949 fields are extremely pretty. Phytogen 330 is also doing a very impressive job. I think 450 is a little late for Arkansas and 340 gets a little big. But the 330 is growing well and I like it very much.”
Some are asking how a mid-April dicamba spraying ban might affect Arkansas cotton. Robertson thinks “it’ll be negligible. Everyone wants to control resistant pigweeds but I’ve talked to and met growers who planted all their acres into Xtend Flex cotton and sprayed not a single ounce of dicamba. Yet, they have clean fields.
“It all goes back to staying on top of any problems that arise early, switching up chemistries, using residuals and all the other recommendations. The bottom line is: I like the new dicamba technology but if it won’t stay where I put it, then it can’t be used. Maybe there are many practices we can do to reduce or eliminate drift. Regardless, for me volatility is a deal killer.
“Look at the watermelon producers this year. Many of them lost their July 4 sales – their biggest sales week of the year – because their melons were drifted on. They made melons but they were late. If volatilization means my neighbor’s produce is harmed, I’m not spraying dicamba. I don’t want the bad feelings that might result and last for years.
“What about vegetable patches and flowerbeds and fruit trees and folks who invested in nicely landscaping their yards? Unless it can’t be avoided, it’s a bad idea to bring ordinary non-farming folks into the situation. You can’t just move and get new neighbors every time there’s a problem.”
What about the increased cotton acreage in 2017?
“Did we plant more cotton this year because the price was so much higher? The answer is no. We planted more cotton because the price of soybeans and corn was so much less than it has been.”
Still, whatever the reason, “cotton is doing well and we’ve picked up more acres for the second year in a row. That means acreage may hold steady for 2018. We can’t lose much on the price – it’s 68 cents per pound and we’re in a situation where with any less, we may pay some bills but won’t have anything to put back into the farm. The bigger yields I’m seeing will help keep us in cotton. If soybean and corn prices jump up, we’ll see cotton acres dip again.
“Right now, ginners should be pleased with the more cotton being grown. But it’s tough for everyone. Cottonseed prices aren’t great – why is it $100 per ton cheaper than it was last year? — and that’s kept a damper on enthusiasm. Seed pays the bills. Big yields need to be accompanied by other positive factors. You may run a lot of bales through a gin but you need everything else to be in place to really have a bang-up year.”