Georgia cotton growers will feel Irma effects throughout harvest
Georgia's cotton growers lost at least 10 percent of their crop to Tropical Storm Irma but yield losses are likely to reach 20 percent and higher as the season unfolds, UGA Cotton Agronomist Jared Whitaker said.
"From preliminary observations, it is safe to say that every cotton field in Georgia has been negatively impacted by Irma to varying degrees," Whitaker wrote in a report presented to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue while Perdue was touring damaged cotton fields in Colquitt County Sept. 15.
Unlike Hurricane Matthew last year, which only impacted Southeast Georgia, Irma whirled across the width of Georgia's Coastal Plain, where the majority of the state's cotton is grown, leaving lint laying on the ground or hanging in stretched sodden clumps from its burrs. Georgia Cotton Commission Chairman Bart Davis, who participated in the tour, said cotton growers near Athens told him they've experienced similar damage.
The USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service estimates about 50 percent of Georgia's cotton bolls were opening when Irma hit the state Sept. 11, but only a small percentage of Georgia's cotton crop was defoliated, so the storm's damage isn't a simple matter of calculating lint laying on the ground and quality losses. Growers and Whitaker say the biggest yield loss will come from the cotton plants Irma blew over.
"Cotton was blown around to varying degrees across the entire state. This can affect yield losses several different ways that can be difficult to estimate," Whitaker said. "Much of the cotton I've seen has been blown over and wrapped together causing spraying and harvesting issues for the rest of the season."
With plants laying across the rows where growers usually drive the wheels of their spraying equipment when they're defoliating their crop, many will have to rely on crop dusters. Colquitt County cotton grower Darren
Hembree says his cotton was about three to four weeks away from being ready to defoliate. He estimates it costs him $4 an acre to defoliate his crop using his equipment versus $8 an acre to hire a crop duster.
"Cotton that is just beginning to open up is the heaviest it will be throughout its life. When opening proceeds, it will allow the plant to stand up. However, the rooting out around the stem could complicate the issue of cotton standing up," Whitaker said.
Stalks were rooted out of the ground due to winds from different directions blowing the plants about. If the cotton plants don't stand back up, growers will have a hard time picking bolls that do open.
"When the picker is going over cotton in the direction the stalk is laying down it's not going to pick it, but it will do better if you come at it against the way it is laying," Hembree said. "But we won't have time to drive over [the same row of] the field in two different directions."
Hembree, who chairs the Georgia Farm Bureau Cotton Committee, said he'll have to drive his picker at a slower speed through the fields than he usually does when harvesting in hopes the machine will be able to grasp the cotton and to keep the twisted stalks from clogging up his machine. He thinks he'll lose 15 to 20 percent of his crop due to his picker not being able to pick the cotton as it could if the plants were standing upright.
Fellow Colquitt County grower Gettis Wingate said he's known growers to pick a field twice to harvest as much cotton as possible.
"With the price of diesel fuel and cotton it wouldn't be worth it," Gettis said.
Leaf scald is also expected to cost crop yield. When Irma blew the stalks over, she left the underside of the cotton leaves upturned and exposed to the sun scalding the leaves.
"Cotton leaves were turned upside down by the storm. The leaf isn't made to catch sunlight from beneath," Hembree explained. "The discoloration in these leaves is a troubling thing because the leaves feed the bolls."
Whitaker reinforced Hembree's concern when talking to Sec. Perdue at a stop in another cotton field that looked similar.
"Windblown cotton will suffer from the fact that leaves that were turned over will get sun bleached and ultimately fall off. This will greatly affect the ability of the crop to continue to fill and mature bolls that are immature."
If the plants don't get enough nutrients they will shed cotton bolls less than 15 days old, Whitaker said. Another problem is that bolls still on the stalks that are now laying close to the ground will be susceptible to boll rot if more rain comes.
"The fields of blown down, non-defoliated cotton could turn out to be in worse shape than the defoliated cotton," Davis said.
Wingate, who has been growing cotton for 30 years, said he's never experienced such a storm.
"Cotton isn't bringing enough as it is and then you take 20 to 30 percent of your crop away, that's a hard pill to swallow," Wingate said. "You have crop insurance, but it will only cover your guarantee and you might make that much so you won't really get money back."
Whitaker says if only 10 percent of the cotton crop is lost statewide, this equates to a $100 million loss for the industry.
Hembree has no way of knowing how much his cotton crop would have yielded an acre but he was hoping it might yield as much as 1,400 pounds of lint an acre. Between all the ways he may lose yield - lint lost on the ground or to boll rot, reduced lint yield to scalded leaves and unharvestable bolls, he's thinking his yield may be down close to 30 percent.
"Say this was a 1,400 pound an acre crop and the storm took 400 pounds of yield an acre," Hembree said. "With cotton bringing 70 cents a pound, that's a loss of $280 an acre just from a one day event. That's kind of humbling."
Click here for photos of cotton and vegetable damage from Irma.