Cotton harvests vary after dry summer weather
By Erica Smith
For the Enquirer
Danville cotton farmer Jason Fields was headed for a disastrous crop when a rain in early July came just in time, and as he began harvesting Oct. 19 he was expecting a good yield.
Fields said he planted on time during the first week of May, but stress from drought put his crop behind.
“We were fortunate that we got rain in early July; that saved our crop. We were on the verge of being like some of the other areas,” Fields said.
Fields said he went 35 days after planting with no rain and it got to a point where the cotton stopped growing.
“I think it was July the ninth we got a big rain and that turned our cotton crop around,” he said. “It could’ve been a whole lot worse.”
With a third of Alabama’s cotton crop already harvested, Steve Brown, cotton agronomist for the Alabama Cooperative Extension Service, predicts this year’s yield will be higher than last year’s despite the abnormally dry weather some of north Alabama experienced during the summer.
Brown said the U.S. Department of Agriculture predicts Alabama farmers will harvest an average of 836 pounds of cotton per acre this year. He expects the yield to be higher than that.
In 2021 there were 826 pounds per acre harvested in Alabama and 790 pounds in 2020. Brown said 2020 was lower due to Hurricane Sally affecting the crop.
Kris White, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Huntsville, said portions of Morgan, Limestone and Lawrence counties were characterized as abnormally dry or in a moderate drought off and on throughout the summer. He said meteorologists are now using the term “flash droughts.”
“This is a drought that evolves very rapidly, and we do tend to be prone to that here in this part of the country,” he said. “Our soils typically do not hold water very well and they lose water very quickly.”
Brown said the droughts will have a significant effect on the cotton crop.
“North Alabama may be depressed; in certain places for sure (the yield is) going to be down. It just depends on who got showers, who got rain and who didn’t,” he said.
White said north Alabama’s summer rainfalls tend to be isolated, leading to an uneven impact on crops.
“Summer precipitation here is not evenly spread, it’s spotty,” he said. “One farmer’s field may get 2 or 3 inches of rain one day and a mile away the other farmer gets nothing.”
While he’s uncertain on the yield, Brown said he believes the color and quality of the cotton in north Alabama should be good.
“We haven’t seen enough to get a final answer on quality, but it should be pretty good given the lack of rainfall we had during the latter half of September and even now into October,” he said.
Fields said he does not yet know how the color and quality of his crop will be but there has only been one rain since his cotton opened.
“We won’t know until it’s graded but I know from years of experience that not having a lot of rain on the cotton once it opens, it should be OK,” he said.
Fields started harvesting Oct. 19, the same time of year he normally begins.
Billy Stickler, general manager of Associated Growers Cooperative cotton gin in Limestone County, said he does not believe there will be any color problems but he has seen some indications that there will be quality issues caused by high micronaire. Micronaire is a measurement of the air permeability of compressed cotton fibers, and high micronaire can result from drought or other stressors on the cotton plant.
Stickler said he has seen the yields vary greatly this year depending on the location of the farm.
“We’re anywhere from probably 500 to 600 pounds all the way up to 1,300 or 1,400 pounds per acre. It depends on if they got a timely rain or not,” he said.
Stickler said he has already received 31% of the cotton his gin will process this year because some cotton crops were harvested early.
“We started in September; we usually don’t start till October ginning-wise. It is earlier this year than it has been because of the dry weather. The cotton matured earlier,” he said.
Stickler expects to have all his ginning completed by the first of December.