A recent drive through rural South Carolina shows evidence of a healthy cotton crop, albeit one that was late to mature.
Cotton pickers and module builders are just now ramping up in the Carolinas, Georgia and many other parts of the Deep South, the result of a growing season slowed by unusually large amounts of rain this year.
Much of South Carolina, for example, has received 50 or more inches of rain in 2013, anywhere from 8 to 18 inches above average precipitation levels. The same appears to be the case across the region.
In years past, lack of rain has been an issue for cotton farmers, particularly in Texas, a major cotton-growing area, so why is excessive rain an issue?
It’s a factor for several reasons, according to Mark Crosby, Emanuel County (Ga.) extension coordinator:
Heavy rainfall caused excessive erosion on sloping fields and in places in fields where the water puddled, the cotton plants stood in water. The worst fields had areas where the cotton drowned, but, in much of the cotton land, the plants stood in soggy, wet soil for weeks and weeks.
Examination of the crop roots showed very little tap root development and shallow feeder roots. Shallow feeder and tap roots limited the plants ability to take up fertilizer because of a lack of oxygen in the soil.
As soils become more and more saturated and eventually became waterlogged, the effects on cotton plants included yellowing, reduced shoot growth, reduced nutrient uptake, altered hormone levels, and other problems. Some fields of cotton had symptoms of reddening leaves and stems being too wet, as well as typical nitrogen deficiency symptoms.
Also, Crosby added, lack of sunshine was an issue. Cotton requires a certain amount of “heat units supplied by intense sunlight.” The development process that takes place within the plant from bloom until a boll is produced takes approximately 60 days, depending on light intensity.
However, in 2013 it took well over 60 days for bolls to mature.
Right now, it’s difficult to tell how the crop will fare overall, but early returns show lower-than-expected yields. However, many of the fields that have yet to be harvested, at least in central and eastern South Carolina, appeared to have, at minimum, above-average crops.
Too much rain, not enough rain, insects, diseases – it’s difficult to imagine a profession where you have less control over your fate than farming.
(Top: Cotton field in Clarendon County, SC, just before being harvested last weekend.)