Hurricanes, government shutdown and trade combined to create a tough year for South Carolina cotton farmers in 2018.
But reports during the South Carolina Cotton Growers Annual Meeting held here Jan. 22 show steps are being taken to help farmers rebound in 2019.
“We still have a lot of cotton in the fields,” said Michael Jones, Clemson cotton specialist. “It’s gotten to the point where farmers may not even worry about it and just let it stay in the fields.”
Cotton harvest begins in late September. Statistics from the United States Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Statistics Services shows about 300,000 acres of cotton were planted in South Carolina in 2018. Hurricanes Florence and Michael arrived during harvest, drowning the state and forcing farmers out of their fields.
“It was tough harvest season for sure,” said Carl Brown, chairman of the South Carolina Cotton Board.
In addition to hurricanes, farmers also have been affected by the government shutdown which kept government workers away from their offices and unable to assist growers.
“Many USDA functions were not available and Farm Service Administration offices were closed,” said Gary Adams, president and chief executive officer of the National Cotton Council. “This caused disruptions in loan programs and implementation of farm programs were put on hold. We are working with officials to ensure American farmers are not severely impacted.”
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South Carolina Commissioner of Agriculture Hugh Weathers said deadlines for farmers to apply for payments under the Market Facilitation Program have been extended. The shutdown began Dec. 22, 2018, causing a lapse in federal funding. It ended on Jan. 25.
The original deadline for the program was Jan. 15, but farmers were unable to apply because lack of funding closed FSA offices on Dec. 28. This deadline will be extended for the number of business days FSA offices were closed.
“In light of the challenges we’re facing, we have great leadership in Washington D.C.,” Weathers said. “Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue knows and understands what farmers go through to provide our nation with food and fiber, and he is committed to doing all he can to ensure American farmers have the resources they need.”
Despite the trying year cotton farmers had in 2018, 2019 is looking better. Nathan Smith, Clemson Extension agriculture economist, said he is encouraged by the outlook for 2019. Farmers in the Cotton Belt – North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana, eastern Texas and Southern Oklahoma – are expected to plant 14 million acres of cotton with the potential for a 23 million bale crop in 2019.
Two key factors likely to contribute to a big 2019 cotton crop are poor prices for corn, soybeans and peanuts, and anticipated favorable weather conditions.
“Based on what I see, cotton is set up to do well in 2019,” Smith said. “If we produce as much as expected, we’ll need to increase our exports.”
In an update on cotton varieties, Jones said new lines are being bred to increase fiber length and strength.
“There are a lot of varieties available,” Jones said. “Variety selection is probably the most important decision you can make. Do your homework and know how a variety will do in your fields before you plant.”
Controlling insects is also important. Jeremy Greene, entomologist at the Edisto Research and Education Center, talked about current issues with insect management and what can be done to alleviate those problems.
“South Carolina has best management practices for thrips that will work just fine for now,” Greene said. “Bt technology also continues to provide decent control of bollworm many caterpillar pests.”
Greene noted plant bugs and whiteflies could be more of a problem in the state in the near future. In addition, Greene also talked about Cotton Leaf Dwarf Virus, also known as Blue Disease. This is a new virus transmitted by cotton aphids that could be extremely important in fields infected with the pathogen.
Also during the meeting, participants heard about other projects researchers from Clemson’s Edisto Research and Education Center are conducting to help make crops more productive for South Carolina farmers. Joe Mari Maja, research sensor engineer at Clemson’s Edisto REC, talked about how he and his team are researching how to build a more affordable harvester that will help farmers reduce labor costs.
Maja has received a grant from Cotton Incorporated to design and develop a cotton harvester attachment for an Unmanned Ground Vehicle (UGV) or robot. Using cotton harvesting machines allows farmers to reduce labor and pick cotton as soon as the bolls open, Maja said.
In another report on research at the Edisto REC, Michael Plumblee, Clemson Extension precision agriculture specialist, talked about research being conducted in the Mid-South to determine the effect of droplet size on cotton defoliation.
Preliminary data suggests that specific combinations of harvest aids, carrier volume and droplet size could reduce the overall efficacy of defoliation rather than improving it. In future studies, Plumblee plans to determine how droplet size effects thrips and bollworm control in cotton.
In closing, Kendall Kirk, Clemson Extension agriculture engineer at the Edisto REC, has developed variable rate nitrogen plans for cotton. The Directed Rx system focuses on improving placement of crop inputs to increase profitability. Farmers can use this variable rate technology system to maximize nitrogen use efficiency while maximizing cotton yields. Kirk has shown the system increases profits by an average of more than $15 per acre without increasing overall nitrogen rates.
“This system maximizes profitability and helps farmers be better stewards of the environment,” Kirk said.