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Farmers struggle to pick disappointing cotton crop

By Dan Rahn
University of Georgia

Georgia cotton farmers may be thinking that old saying, "you can't win for losing," was intended for them. Struggling with the drought all summer, they finally began getting plenty of rain this fall, precisely when they needed lots of sunshine.

"All this rain has made it a pretty miserable time for people growing cotton," said Steve Brown, a cotton scientist with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

Georgia farmers headed into November with about half of the state's 1.45-million-acre cotton crop harvested. The fall weather was greatly limiting harvest time for cotton, which must be picked dry.

Rains hurt yields, quality

"The rains have made things very difficult," Brown said. "It has lowered both the yields and the quality."

When cotton bolls first open, he explained, the cotton is at its peak, with its brightest, whitest fibers. The more it's exposed to rain, the more the cotton deteriorates. The fibers become duller, grayer.

In the rain, the burr that holds the cotton bleeds onto the fibers, further damaging the color. The rains damage the quality of the seeds, too, which are used for oils and livestock feed.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture started the season predicting Georgia farmers would produce 2 million 480-pound bales of cotton and average 710 pounds per acre, Brown said. Latest estimates are down to 1.7 to 1.8 million pounds and 621 pounds per acre.

Yield estimates keep dropping

"I think we're going to wind up somewhere around 600 pounds per acre," he said.

East Georgia cotton farmers have been generally the hardest hit, said Brown and Philip Jost, a UGA cotton scientist in Statesboro, Ga. While the fall rains have hurt farmers fairly equally statewide, the summer drought had limited cotton grown more in the eastern part of the state.

"The big issues in southeast Georgia have been first that drought stress limited the boll set," Jost said, "and then the late rains rotted some of the bolls there were and stimulated regrowth in the top of the plants."

The late regrowth was a complication cotton farmers didn't need. At best, it gave them two crops on the same plants. For most, though, the weather was so consistently rainy or overcast that the late regrowth is now just extra foliage getting in the way of a clean harvest.

Many fields wiped out

A month ago, Jost said, crop insurance adjusters were estimating the yields in some fields at just 150 to 200 pounds per acre. "But they were anticipating that those top bolls would open, and they haven't," he said. "So now they're going back with estimates at about a third of that."

Even at 150 pounds per acre, the cotton isn't worth harvesting, he said. With the price deductions for reduced quality, the $50 or so farmers would get per acre won't cover the cost of defoliating, picking, ginning and storing the cotton.

Jost said farmers in Burke County are probably the hardest hit in east Georgia. Richard McDaniel, the UGA Extension Service coordinator there, said farmers in the county have already accepted crop insurance claims and mowed down 12,000 of the county's 46,500 cotton acres. He estimates they will destroy 25,000 acres before they're done.

"It's terrible," Jost said. "In some of those fields that have been mowed, you can walk out there and not see any lint at all."

(Dan Rahn is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

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