By mid-November, less than 50 percent of the High Plains cotton crop was “off the stalk,” according to Texas Extension cotton specialist Randy Boman, of Lubbock. But a hard freeze last weekend was expected to move the crop closer to finish.

“A large part of the irrigated cotton is out of the field,” Boman said, “but many farmers were waiting on a killing freeze to terminate the crop. A lot of growers were waiting on that cold snap instead of spending more money on harvest aids.”

Boman said the 2003 crop will be one many producers are anxious to forget. “In Lubbock, we had .39 inches of rain in July and August,” he said. “That’s the lowest on record since 1911.”

He said September rainfall “got things cranked back up and we had regrowth that was hard to control with harvest aides.”

Hail played havoc with significant acreage in the High Plains as well. Boman says spring storms wiped out about 1.4 million acres of cotton across the region. Farmers replanted some 300,000 acres late, in mid-June.

“Net loss at that time was approximately 1.1 million acres,” he said. “The July and August drought also took out some of the dryland crop. And then hail hit again in September and October, taking out or badly damaging, another 150,000 acres.

“Precise numbers are still difficult to get,” Boman said, “but we’re probably up to 1.2 to 1.3 million acres lost from this year’s crop.”

Texas Agricultural Statistics Service estimates indicate a 3.6 million-acre crop planted in the High Plains region, compared to 3.7 million last year. Boman said harvested acres will be closer to 2.4 million.

“We’ve easily lost more than 1 million bales of cotton,” he said. “Production estimates show a 2.04 million bale crop. Last year we made 3.25 million bales, so that’s close to a 1.25 million bale loss.”

Boman said the crop north of Lubbock was hit hard by weather. “But we could see some record or near record yields south of Lubbock, in Gaines County, for instance. Some farmers with good irrigation will beat their personal bests.”

He said quality of early harvested cotton has been surprisingly good. By Nov. 20, some 800,000 bales had made it through the classing office. Boman said color rating was mostly 11s and 21s.

“Staple is steadily improving over time. The short fibers come in first, mostly from the beat up fields. Average has been 34 or so and could get higher on some days. Strength has been around 29 grams per tex. Leaf grades have been around 2. That’s fantastic.”

Boman said micronaire has been a concern. “We’re probably going to see some high mike from early harvest, as much as 20 percent in the discount range. We hope that will moderate as we get in more cotton from north of Lubbock.”

He said bark has been almost non-existent. “We may see more from later harvest, but a timely harvest, finishing by late December, should produce a crop with no substantial bark problems.”

Boman said the 2003 crop brought some surprises.

“I was amazed at how some dryland cotton turned out,” he said. ‘It’s pretty surprising what some fields made even though they didn’t get any rain during the growing season. Cotton is a tough plant and if we can get it established it never ceases to amaze me what it can do.”

He said farmers also learned some valuable lessons from this disastrous season.

“Early in the season, some producers had fields that were so beaten up they were inclined to abandon the crop. But some left it and saw how resilient cotton can be. A lot of it came back and made reasonable yields and good quality.

“We also found out that we can get by with much fewer seeds per acre than we are used to. Farmers used to plant considerably more seed when seed was cheap, but we know we can get by with one to one-and-one-half plants per foot of row. With a thin stand, we’ve learned that it’s better to keep it than replant. The two to three weeks we lose when we replant may cost more than taking the thin stand to harvest.”

Boman said farmers can use lessons from the 2003 season in their 2004 planning.

“This year we saw farmers plant a lot of acreage into terminated small grains and those fields seemed to survive the adverse weather better than crops planted on bare soil.”

He said planting in terminated small grain cover will not shield seedling cotton from severe damage in a devastating hailstorm.

“But a lot of cotton that survived was in terminated cover. That was a significant benefit for many producers.”

The system works best for farmers with irrigation, he said. “Dryland producers can’t afford to use limited moisture for a cover crop.”

Boman said 2003 is a year he and many others will be glad to have behind them. “It’s been a tough year.”

e-mail: rsmith@primediabusiness.com