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Timely Harvest

Despite Hurricanes And Cool Weather,
It Takes Planning, Experience And Plenty Of Luck

By Tommy Horton


A long and sometimes unpredictable crop season is nearing an end across the Cotton Belt. Even with the prospect of better-than-average conditions, it will take plenty of expertise to complete this fall’s harvest. If the weather cooperates, producers might defy the odds and salvage a good crop.

Obviously, nobody can control the weather. That was evident in the Southeast and Mid-South as hurricanes devastated cotton acreage. In other areas, it was unseasonably cool temperatures – especially in California and the Texas High Plains – that posed a major challenge.

However, hope springs eternal as producers look for additional heat units to finish out crops before the pickers are cranked up.

The question now is how can any farmer improve his harvest efficiency? Can he use the same routine every year? Or should he seek out new ways to protect fiber quality and get the crop out of the field in a timely way?

These questions have particular significance to the Texas High Plains where this year’s cotton is behind by a couple of weeks because of cool, rainy weather in August and September.

Early Weather Problems

Adding to the worries of Texas producers is the fact that hailstorms, sandstorms and high winds earlier in the year took out 1.2 million acres. About 940,000 acres of that total was dryland cotton. The rest was irrigated acreage.

“We’ve got a long way to go before we put this cotton into the bale,” says Randy Boman, High Plains Extension cotton specialist. “It’s been an expensive year for our producers, and they probably don’t have more money to put into this crop.”

Having said that, Boman recently told a group of producers that they needed to think about harvesting this late crop in a timely fashion and consider spending additional money on harvest aid applications.

Even if the High Plains crop catches up and finds those needed heat units, Boman says in some areas it could be the third week of October before defoliation and harvest can begin. With the threat of freezing temperatures on Nov. 1, every day will be critical.

“As we get closer to November, the question is what kind of maturity problems are we looking at,” says Boman. “If the crop hasn’t matured, that will affect when we can think about harvesting.”

If there appears to be additional interest in the High Plains crop, it might be because 91,000 cotton acres in the Rio Grande Valley were taken out by Hurricane Dolly earlier in the fall. The situation also is compounded because more than half of the cotton acres in the Belt are in Texas.

How can the High Plains make this harvest as timely as possible? Provided the weather conditions are drier and warmer, Boman says producers must monitor crop development and know precisely when to defoliate and harvest.

“With all of the recent rains we’ve had, it will make it difficult for harvest-aid applications,” he adds. “Last year we had the perfect conditions with a dry fall. That made for a better soil profile, and the harvest aids were more effective.”

Boman says harvest efficiency can be aided by including tankmixes of Def, GinStar, Aim, ET or Blizzard in the ethephon applications, depending on conditions at the time of application.

Monitor The Crop’s Progress

As for other harvest preparations, Boman says the message that needs to be sent to all High Plains producers is “monitor your crop and do whatever is necessary to preserve cotton quality.”

Because much of the High Plains has made the switch to picker varieties, an earlier harvest is the goal each year. When the crop is late, that makes some varieties more vulnerable to late season rains.

“If the cotton has to stay out there for very long, we’ll be looking at lower yields and a decrease in quality,” says Boman. “That’s what we face sometimes with looser bolls, and that’s why we always need picker varieties that are more storm resistant.”

As for feeling any pressure because Texas is such an important cotton production state, Boman says it’s just business as usual.

He takes pride in what Texas has delivered in the way of yields and quality for the past three or four years. But his farmers’ daily routines haven’t changed any.

“We still live with what we have to do every day,” he says. “We don’t feel any pressure because of other people’s expectations. We just have to take it one day at a time and hope that the weather gives us a break.”

Cautious Optimism In Mid-South

Compared to the Texas High Plains, the Mid-South offers an environment that has different soil profiles, weather and pest threats.

For that reason, Mississippi Delta producer Justin Cariker approaches his harvest strategy from another perspective. Because of later planting dates and various weather problems – including excessive heat in the summer – Cariker has decided to wait to allow top bolls to develop fully.

He won’t wait forever on them, but he’s willing to take a chance and see if he can maximize yields before finally deciding to harvest.

What makes Cariker’s situation intriguing is that he has early and late planted cotton. He has 1,000 acres that was planted in late April. He also has 2,000 acres planted on May 15. The early planted cotton will be a late crop, and because of cool, wet weather this fall, he’s probably looking at harvesting the rest of his cotton at an even later date.

“Naturally, I worry about boll rot and the other problems you face when it rains,” he says. “This may sound crazy, but I still think we’ll have a pretty good crop. It won’t be a barnburner like we had last year, but I’m very optimistic.”

Risky Night-Time Harvesting

As for other harvest strategies, Cariker won’t try to push his crews too much by making them harvest the crop at night. Even though he is tempted to pick the cotton as quickly as possible, he subscribes to a different theory in the fall.

“I worry about the moisture that might be on the cotton,” he says. “And I don’t think we can be very productive and attentive in the field at that hour of the night. All of us are tired, and we can’t afford mistakes. I guess I’m just stubborn, but that’s how I farm.”

Contact Tommy Horton at (901) 767-4020 or thorton@onegrower.com.

Keys To Harvest Efficiency

• A spindle picker should put 95 percent of open cotton into the basket.
• Turnrows should be 30 feet wide, firm, smooth and free of tall grass.
• Check for damaged spindles, moistener pads, doffers, bearings and bushings.
• Avoid grease contamination from picker during harvest.
• Avoid harvesting cotton when it is too moist. Efficiency can be reduced 5 percent.
• Harvesting should be delayed until the dew has dried.

Source: Clemson University

Extending The Crop Season

As different as Texas and Mississippi are in how they produce cotton, an outsider wouldn’t think California had common problems with those two regions.

But that is precisely what is happening this year. California Extension farm advisor Steve Wright says producers in his state “have in quite a few cases put on later irrigation applications to help fill out bolls at the top of the plant.” In essence, the season is being extended to gain a top crop, because of a nearly non-existent bottom crop in many fields.

Even more than most years, harvest aid and harvest timing decisions will be on a field-by-field basis, since boll distribution patterns are variable across fields.

University and producer experience with Pima cotton is that it takes even longer to mature than Acala varieties, requiring seven to even 14 days longer to mature out and open late season bolls. With this in mind, it is difficult to finish off and harvest bolls with a bloom date later than the last week of August in the best of years.

This year there will be less than 300,000 cotton acres in California – a far cry from the previous high of 1.2 million acres just a few years ago. The acreage is split into 60 percent Pima and 40 percent Acala.

Wright says producers can take this year’s crop into the third week of October before cool weather becomes a factor. Applications of GinStar, Def and Folex have helped speed up boll development some but if the weather turns cold, he says it won’t be advisable to wait for those last few late bolls.

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