Cotton growers in California and Arizona are almost afraid to talk about their crop for fear they will be like the emerging sports stars that appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated and are never heard from again.

“You don't want to say too much good because you are afraid you'll jinx it,” said Steve Husman, University of Arizona field crops agent for Pinal and Pima counties, in the heart of Central Arizona's cotton country.

“We are off to a pretty good start,” said California Cotton Ginners and Growers Association president Earl Williams.

Heat units could be higher for San Joaquin Valley Pima producers; not all stands are adequate, and there are spotty reports of early, heavy insect pressures, said Williams.

“However, we did not have much replanting. Heavy thunderstorms and hail moved to the valley in mid-May, but we have had no reports of damage to cotton,” said Williams.

‘In good shape’

“Considering the year so far, we are in good shape,” said Williams, who estimates 245,000 acres of Pima were planted and about 400,000 to 450,000 acres of upland. That differs significantly from the first USDA estimate of 590,000 acres of upland, but right on with the 245,000 Pima estimate.

Arizona's acreage totals about 267,000 acres, and it's even better than California's crop.

“Good to excellent,” is the early season analysis of Husman.

“There are fields here and there with less than ideal stands, but for the most part we are off to the best start in several years,” he said.

“We are seeing retention as early as the fifth node and for sure seven and eight node,” Husman said. In his April 1 test plots, heat units are nine days ahead of normal.

It has been hot - already exceeding 110 in Arizona - but growers are getting that first irrigation on in a timely manner.

Maricopa County field crops agent Pat Clay said seedling disease has not been a problem and no early season insect problems have surfaced.

“Our biggest problems so far have been a couple of early season cold fronts that did some serious sandblasting, but replanting was minimal,” he said.

Crop not delayed

“Overall, we are off to a good start,” said Clay.

Seedling disease thinned some San Joaquin Valley cotton stands and thrips were heavy enough in some areas to warrant treatment, but overall problems have not been significant enough to hold back the 2002 crop overall, according to University of California Extension Cotton Specialist Bob Hutmacher.

By June 1 there were cotton fields that had already reached 10 and 11 nodes in many areas of the valley. Six and seven node growth was common, said Hutmacher.

Producers had begun first irrigations. “We are not far off the typical starting date for that first irrigation and with the threat of 100-degree temperatures on the horizon, I expect a lot of irrigating over the next 10 days,” he said.

Treating for thrips damage is unusual for the San Joaquin Valley, but Hutmacher said it was severe enough that some growers treated. “It has been scattered in Kern, Kings and Tulare counties. Those fields are a little behind, but should come out of it with good weather,” he added.

“By comparison to other areas of the Belt, I think we are off to a good start. I was pretty disappointed in the thrips damage I saw, but when we started looking at the university's variety trials up and down the valley it was a lot different. The trials looked very good,” said Hutmacher.

In other parts of the Cotton Belt,

You don't have to look very far on Jimmy Hargett's farm to see the bad hand Mother Nature has dealt the Mid-South cotton crop this spring.

The edge of one of Hargett's fields is shielded from the north wind by a tree line. The cotton in that area is larger and healthier than cotton just a few feet away where the trees did not provide a barrier.

While warmer temperatures reportedly have helped improve the Mid-South crop's prospects, the north wind and unseasonably cool temperatures in mid-May have taken their toll, cotton specialists say.

As a result, the Mid-South's cotton acreage is expected to fall from 360,000 to 560,000 acres below USDA's earlier estimate of 4.02 million acres. Nationwide, some analysts say, U.S. farmers could plant as few as 13.5 million acres (vs. earlier predictions of 14.8 million).

“I've had only one other crop to start off this bad and that was 1967. It stayed cool during the year and we had frost in September. We made 250 pounds to the acre. This start is worse,” said Hargett, who replanted about 12 percent of his 5,000 acres of cotton this year.

Loss to flooding

Extension specialists say West Tennessee farmers lost 26,000 acres of cotton to bottom-land flooding in Lauderdale, Lake and Tipton counties along the Mississippi River. Growers will probably try to plant the ground in soybeans.

“It's too late for replanting cotton,” said Craig Massey, University of Tennessee area Extension specialist, in a June 3 interview.

Massey estimates growers replanted 25 percent to 30 percent of cotton acreage in west Tennessee this spring. “In some of the southern tier counties, where growers started planting cold, wet bottom land in April, we replanted anywhere from 30 percent to 50 percent.”

In March, USDA projected plantings for Tennessee at 580,000 acres. The final number could be closer to 500,000 acres because of this spring's environmental conditions, according to Massey.

Missouri's cotton acreage could drop from an estimated 405,000 acres to 390,000 to 395,000 acres due to sand damage, cold weather, thrips and seedling disease.

“I'm guessing that we'll replant between 30,000 acres and 50,000 acres,” says Missouri Extension cotton specialist Bobby Phipps. “There will be about 10,000 acres to 15,000 acres lost that will go to soybeans.”

Drought or flooding

Farther south, producers are looking at drought or flooding, depending on which side of the Arkansas-Louisiana line they farm.

“We've been hit hard with the drought,” says Randy Machovec, consultant with Pest Management Enterprises in Cheneyville, La. “We finally got some timely rains, but I'm not sure how far they'll go. It's certainly too late in some fields that are being replanted.”

Machovec said central Louisiana received two days of rain the last week of May — “our first two rainy days of the season.”

And it hasn't rained in Machovec's portion of central Louisiana since. “There are cracks in these fields that I can put my arm into up the shoulder. It's unbelievable, especially with all the rain further north.”

Machovec still sees fields with no stand. The state is in a horrible rain deficit and the crops are going to be impacted negatively. Machovec sees yields being 25 or 30 percent off normal.

The big problem, besides being perilously close to being outside the planting window, is farmers are spot planting into fields that are already eight-and-nine-node cotton. That cotton is going to be tough to manage, especially with Roundup Ready varieties.

Thrips, aphids

Because of the drought, farmers have had major troubles with thrips and are now running into aphids. Unlike Texas, Louisiana doesn't have a Section 18 on Furadan. “We've tried a couple of other old, standby products and didn't get anywhere,” Machovec said. “We've got failures reported, and we need that Furadan Section 18.”

In northern Louisiana, aphids are the predominant pests, although thrips still plague some late-planted fields. It won't be long before farmers will be seeing tarnished plant bugs as well, says Ralph Bagwell, Extension entomologist with the LSU AgCenter.

Making a comment on cotton acreage in the state is still guesswork, says Louisiana Extension cotton specialist Sandy Stewart. “The highest estimate I've seen was from the USDA at 660,000 acres. The National Cotton Council had us around 600,000 acres recently. I suspect both those estimates are optimistic.”

“We've got some seedling disease, some Rhizoctonia, some black root rot in southeast Arkansas and some other things. It's just too cold and wet,” says Don Plunkett, Ark. Extension cotton verification program coordinator.

Lost month

“Take out your calendar, tear the month of May out and throw it away. We lost the month of May,” said Mississippi Extension cotton specialist Will McCarty.

“Farmers south of U.S. Highway 82 were extremely dry,” McCarty said. “Those north of Hwy. 82 were cold and wet. And I've had as many calls about hail damage in May as I usually get for the whole year.

“It's unusual. Cotton has not grown; the wind blew out of the east and north a lot, which is very harmful and very tough on young seedling cotton. Up until about May 20, cotton never had a chance to grow. The thrips jumped all over it. It's one of the most non-uniform starts I've ever seen,” McCarty said.

Acreage “is anybody's guess,” said McCarty. “I'm having a hard time coming up with a figure. I still see fields rowed up with nothing on them. And we're still planting (as of June 5). I think our acreage will fall somewhere between 1.1 million acres and 1.2 million acres. Some people say 1.1 million is optimistic.”

“Our acreage will likely be a bit off from the USDA planting intentions report of 1.4 million acres because some Mississippi growers are choosing soybeans and corn over cotton this year,” said Charles Snipes, Extension area agronomist and cotton specialist for the Delta region of Mississippi.

There are many questions for the crop to answer, says Arkansas' Robertson, and the margin for error is now non-existent. In a normal year, if farmers are a little late on the initial shot of fertilizer or irrigation, it won't hurt terribly. That isn't the case this year.

“If we put out too much nitrogen, it'll make a late crop even later and hit farmers' pocketbooks. There just won't be any extra time at the end of the season to make up for an early season misstep. Management decisions are absolutely critical now. I think with precise, proper management much of the losses we're looking at can be made up. But everyone must be on their toes,” says Robertson.

Growers will have to manage this cotton crop very closely, according to the University of Tennessee's Massey. “It's been under so much stress and stands are going to be thinner. It's going to try and go vegetative, so we're going to have to manage our Pix applications for earliness. We have to make it fruit just as early as we can.

“We can't handle much plant bug or worm damage,” Massey added. “We're also expecting a big stinkbug population. We're still not sure how we're going to manage it because we don't have a tight enough threshold to trigger sprays.”

Texas outlook

Texas farmers are planting the 5.7 million to 5.8 million acres USDA was forecasting earlier. But substantial acreage in South Texas is being lost to dry weather and yields in the Corpus Christi area could already be down 25 percent from last year.

“Some acreage close to Robstown has also been lost to dry weather,” says Carl Anderson, Extension marketing specialist with Texas A&M University. “Thus, without timely rain during the next two or three weeks, Texas will have 1 million or more acres abandoned, and it could approach the 1.75 million acres abandoned in Texas last year.”

On the High Plains, farmers have planted about 80 percent of their intentions, but some of those acres will have to be replanted due to hail damage.

“Most of the dryland is still waiting for a rain,” said the Plains Cotton Growers' Shawn Wade. “A good bit of the irrigated is up to a stand, but in various stages of progress. Cool conditions and some rains have combined to slow growth.”

Oklahoma's acreage likely will hold steady at 240,000 to 250,000, but continued dry weather could limit planting, says J.C. Banks, Oklahoma Extension cotton specialist, who says he had hoped to see an increase this year.

Analysts say New Mexico's upland cotton acreage could fall 27 percent to 55,000 acres this year. American-Pima cotton is expected to remain stable at 6,000 acres.