Georgia cotton farmers face late harvest

lmorris@macon.comNovember 9, 2013 

  • Cotton: By the numbers

    • 1.3 million acres planted in Georgia in 2012
    • Cotton-related businesses provide 53,000 jobs in Georgia
    • Cotton’s overall impact more than $3 billion in Georgia
    • U.S. producers planted 12.36 million acres in 2012, down 16 percent from 2011
    • A cotton bale weighs about 480 pounds
    • Takes 1.5 pounds of cotton to make one pair of jeans

    Sources: UGA’s Cooperative Extension Service and the National Agricultural Statistics Services

Some years, Eddie Green starts harvesting his cotton in late August or early September.

As of Thursday, the Dooly County farmer had yet to start gathering any bolls from his 320 acres of cotton.

“This will be the latest I’ve ever started,” said Green, who has been growing cotton about 20 years.

Green is not alone.

The cotton harvest in Georgia has been delayed this year because of an unusual rainy and cooler summer.

Cotton is a big deal in the state and has been for a long time. The Peach State was the first colony to produce cotton commercially, first planting it near Savannah in 1734, according to the University of Georgia’s Cooperative Extension Service. Cotton-related businesses provide 53,000 jobs in the state, and cotton was the second highest farm commodity with $1.2 billion in 2012.

Nearly 64,000 acres of cotton was planted in Dooly County last year, making it the top-producing county in the state, according to the Georgia Agricultural Statistics Service. The other top cotton counties are Colquitt (62,000 acres), Worth (54,600 acres), Mitchell (51,400 acres) and Brooks (41,500 acres).

This year, early wet conditions caused some farmers to give up on cotton altogether.

“We would have planted cotton,” said Alice Hudson, who is married to longtime farmer Terrell Hudson, who normally plants at least 300 acres in Dooly County. “But it rained so long, and it was too wet for so long we couldn’t get the cotton in (the field). ... Time ran out on the cotton, so we planted soybeans.”

The Hudsons, who are Green’s mother- and father-in-law, have been farming in the midstate for about 50 years.

Green said his cotton got planted on time, but “the cotton crop just did not accumulate the heat units that it would normally accumulate in a typical summer. I would guess that this crop is at least two weeks behind where we were last year.”

The rain slowed down the cotton’s development in the summer, and cooler weather hindered its growth, according to a report by the University of Georgia’s College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

Normally, by mid-November about 80 percent of the cotton crop has been harvested.

As of last week, about 35-40 percent of the cotton in mid-to-south Georgia had been harvested, said Jeremy Kichler, a UGA extension service coordinator in Macon County.

“Looks like we’ve got a good crop this year, we’re just late getting to it,” Green said. “But you never know exactly what you’ve got until you get in it and get it ginned and get some weights (reported) back.”

This year’s crop won’t come close to last year when Green said he had “the best cotton crop we’ve ever had. ... But we still have a lot to be thankful for (this year).”

Kichler said some farmers who have started harvesting are getting pretty good yields so far.

“I’m hearing two to two-and-a half (bales of) cotton (per acre),” Kichler said. “A bale of cotton is about 500 pounds after you gin it, and that’s pretty good cotton -- not as good as last year but we’ll take it. ... Last year was a phenomenal year for cotton. We were doing three-bale cotton easy or 1,500 pounds per acre.”

But farmers faced “a different challenge this year compared to other years where we’ve had drought,” he said. “It’s been a change.”

Some farmers are putting chemicals on the cotton to open up the bolls, and the bolls are not opening up as quickly as they would like, Kichler said.

The wet, cloudy weather this summer also has caused some leaf spot disease, “which is a new and upcoming issue for cotton,” he said.

Heavy rains also caused the fertilizer to sometimes wash through the soil too deep for the roots to soak up the nutrient, he said. But because of the rains, at least farmers were able to save on irrigation costs this year.

James Sheppard, owner of Sheppard Farms in Twiggs County, has harvested about 300 acres of cotton already, but he’s just getting started. He planted about 2,600 acres of cotton this year.

“This is very late,” said Sheppard, who has been growing cotton for 11 years. Like Green, Sheppard has never begun harvesting cotton this late in the year.

But he’s encouraged because “it’s turning out better than I was expecting.”

Sheppard is getting about 800 pounds to an acre so far, which is about a bale and a half, he said. It normally takes him about three months to harvest all his cotton.

Because of the quality this year, which is not at the top of the scale, Sheppard expects his cotton to be made into blue jeans instead of material for finer products such as blouses or shirts.

Some midstate cotton farmers were slightly affected by frost about two weeks ago.

In some low-lying areas, the frost nipped the top leaves of the cotton on some farms, Kichler said.

When that happens, “it kind of crisped them, and then when you put the defoliant on it, it kind of sticks,” he said. “It may put some trash in the linen -- it may affect the grade a little bit. ... (Also,) if frost gets on the cotton bolls they just won’t open.”

Sheppard said his cotton got some frost, but it wasn’t enough to do any damage.

“(Forecasters) are talking about another cool front coming in, and that’s worrying me,” he said.

But Sheppard has a new cotton picker that helps him harvest faster, and he hopes he can stay ahead of any damaging weather.

“I went to a new style cotton picker, and I’m getting a lot more done in a day’s time than I was,” he said. “It’s the same size, but it’s called a baler picker -- it bales (the cotton) into a huge-looking hay bale while you’re picking. You hit a button and it will spit out the bale out the back, and you never have to stop to dump (the cotton). It bales it up just like a hay baler.”

Sheppard said he cut out a lot of equipment by switching to the new baler that has been available about four years.

“Now, I only have to have one other tractor to pick up the bale with some forks to take it to the side of the field,” he said.

Sheppard wants what all cotton farmers want this time of year.

“I need clear weather all way through the harvest,” he said.

To contact writer Linda S. Morris, call 744-4223.

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