Alabama Cotton Shorts

October 13, 2020

October 13, 2020

Situation.  The initial (August) USDA estimate for Alabama cotton predicted an average yield of 981 lb/A with a total of 950,000 bales from 465,000 acres. The September report had downward adjustments in acres planted (450,000), average yield (976 lb/A), and total bales (905,000).
Hurricane Sally roared into the Alabama Gulf Coast on September 16, and in contrast to frequent post-hurricane weather, rain and overcast conditions persisted for 10-plus days afterwards, adding to boll rot and hardlock which were already in abundance. Prior to Sally, Laura affected parts of North Alabama. Behind Sally, on October 9-10, came Delta dumping rain on a lot of cotton.
The October 9 USDA report predicted yields of 960 lb/A from 445,000 acres harvested for a total of 890,000 bales. Keep in mind that the BWEP reported slightly under 405,000 planted acres.
We’ve seen a few really good fields, some already picked, but overall the crop has been punished by poor conditions in what are typically our driest weeks. Persisting overcast, wet weather and periodic rains have delayed defoliation and harvest. We’re behind. The later crop has generally fared better than the earlier planted. Sunshine may brighten and improve a crop that once was well above average, but I suspect yields from planted acreage may fall below 850 lb/A and 775,000 bales. (Brown)
Make Cover Crop Planting a Priority This Harvest Season. Cover crops are an investment much like any other input for agricultural operations. In order for producers to get the most out of their investment, cover crops should be managed to maximize benefits while minimizing costs. Many of the benefits associated with cover crops are enhanced by increasing cover crop biomass.  For example, greater amounts of residue on the soil surface following cover crop termination can help suppress weeds and improve soil moisture retention during the cash crop growing season.
When making management considerations for cover crop biomass production, there are few costs that producers can control. These tips can help producers reduce cost while maintaining biomass production:
  • Plant early. Planting early is critical for producing high cover crop biomass, which can maximize season-long cover crop benefits for the cash crop that follows. Recent research in Alabama shows that a rye cover crop planted in mid-October with no N added produces the same amount of biomass as rye planted in early December with 90 lbs N applied (see graph below).
   Graph courtesy of Dr. Kip Balkcom, Research Agronomist, USDA-ARS.
  • Optimize seeding rates. For producers drilling 90 pounds per acre or more of small grain (ex. Cereal rye, oat) as a cover crop, consider reducing seeding rates to approximately 40-60 pounds per acre. Research in Alabama has shown that increasing seeding rates above 40-60 pounds does not increase biomass of small grain cover crops like rye, oat, and triticale.   
  • Fertilize efficiently. Supplemental N fertilizer may be required for producers unable to plant early to ensure they achieve adequate biomass levels, particularly for late-planted cover crops. It is important to consider weather conditions when determining when to apply N fertilizer. In years with heavy rainfall, applied N can be lost through leaching deeper into the soil profile. To improve fertilizer use efficiency, it may be beneficial for producers to wait until spring to make N applications in years when heavy rainfall is expected throughout the fall and winter months (for example, in an El Niño year) or for late-planted cover crops. (Gamble)
Summary of the Cotton Insect Situation – 2020 Season. Alabama was expected to yield in the neighborhood of 900 lb/A statewide prior to Hurricane Sally. However, even before Sally numerous cloudy, wet days had already caused some level of hardlock/boll rot. The area impacted by the above was concentrated in the southern one-third of the state where about 42 percent of Alabama’s acreage is planted. The highest yields in 2020 will likely come from the central and western areas of the state, which plants about 23 percent of the total acreage.
Insects were not a major limiting factor in yield losses this season. Numerous insects required attention, but no one particular species dominated the scene. In fact, several minor pests caused as much concern as our more major insects. Looking back, here is what was observed and experienced.
Grasshopper feeding was a major concern to seedling cotton on the sandier soils (about 60 to 70 percent of planted acreage) statewide. Several fields or areas of fields had to be replanted due to grasshopper damage to seedling plants. This resulted in management problems all season due to different ages of cotton in numerous fields. Thrips numbers were heavy and numbers extended throughout a long planting window. Even late-planted cotton required a foliar spray on top of our seed treatments. Pests such as snails and slugs also were major concerns in some fields, some of which resulted in replanting.
Adult plant bugs moved into fields in June and were heaviest in earlier planted fields. Significant acreages were treated for these adults and later for the immature offspring in July to August. Aphids occurred later than normal and were sporadic in occurrence. Escape bollworms were almost nonexistent over most of the state, and scouts/fieldmen had to search hard to find sub-threshold levels at any point in the season. However, bollworm moths were abundant in pheromone traps at certain points in the season statewide.
Spider mites presented problems during extended dry periods from June until August. Treatments were required. Control decisions on these pests are some of the most difficult to make for growers or advisors. Stink bugs were not as damaging as expected following a mild winter. However, economic numbers of the southern green species appeared unexpectedly in southern fields in September. It was not certain where they migrated from, but pecan orchards or old abandoned pecans trees are suspect. The brown marmorated species was noticeably lighter than in recent seasons. In the end, the bug complex (plant bugs and stink bugs) were our most damaging insects statewide in 2020.
This 2020 season will be the final season for me as an Extension entomologist. I have attempted to be on top of the Alabama cotton insect situation through the good years and the bad since 1972 (48 seasons). To give some perspective to that time – Richard Nixon was president and the Vietnam War was still on-going.
My replacement is already on board, and many of you have met him already or read his releases this season (tweets, newsletters, etc.). Dr. Scott Graham is a Mississippi native and holds row crop entomology degrees from Mississippi State and the University of Tennessee, working under the direction of several of the most prominent cotton entomologists in the U.S. He has already demonstrated that he is a most capable entomologist and will do a great job in this position in future years.
Dr. Ron Smith (center) conversing with West Alabama cotton grower John Cunningham last week. Dr. Scott Graham (left) also participates in the discussion.
My plans are to stay up to date in row crop insects and continue with the same phone number: 334-332-9501. I hope to continue crossing paths with many of you for a few more years in agricultural or Extension meetings. In summary, it has been a busy but rewarding career highlighted by the many friendships I have made.   Dr. Ron Smith
In the “Old Days”... It has been a great privilege to travel with Dr. Ron Smith on many occasions this summer. Of course, he’s been all about staying current on cotton insects in the vastly different growing regions of Alabama. He’s right in the thick of what pests are here and there and what controls are working best on each. But he’s also included a few stops to connect with some of his contacts from over the years. At times it’s almost felt like a “victory lap” of sorts. The respect and appreciation which these folks express to him are a fitting testimony of his commitment, professionalism, experience, and expertise. As he stated above, he’s been there through the “good years and the bad.” His contributions have been bigger than immense. We suspect he’ll continue to be a helpful resource to all for a good while yet. He is an incredible entomologist and an all-around great cotton man.  (Brown)
Fiber Quality. Lint quality is an important component of the bottom line. Yes, yield is most important, but a few cents per pound more or less can sure get your attention. A new publication on fiber quality can be referenced at the link below or on the ACES Agronomic Crops page.  (Brown)

This issue contributors:
Dr. Audrey Gamble Extension Soil Scientist
Dr. Ron Smith, Professor Emeritus, Extension Entomologist
Dr. Steve M. Brown, Extension Agronomist  (Editor) typos and other mistakes are mine 

About the Alabama Cotton Shorts Newsletter
Alabama Cotton Shorts is a newsletter designed to keep cotton producers in the know. From planting dates to crop inputs—there are many factors to consider. The Alabama Cooperative Extension System is dedicated to providing science- and research-based information, derived from field experience and observations. A team of Extension specialists are working to provide Alabama farmers with timely information throughout the growing and harvest seasons.

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