The message posted on Olton Farm Supply's sign said it best, "We're dreaming of a dry Christmas."
The anticipation of the 2004 harvest was dampened by a series of snow and rain events throughout November and December, leaving producers and ginners alike wondering when they would get back in the field and begin ginning again. Thanks to a slight reprieve in the wet weather, producers were back in the field by the beginning of December, most days, and Olton CO-OP Gin was running 24 hours a day.
"The farmers were harvesting the cotton at an expedient pace, making about 200 modules a day," said Olton CO-OP Gin manager Chris Breedlove. "We started the night crew about the first of December and leased four more module trucks, bringing our fleet to 10. We wanted to get the modules out of the field as quickly as possible and onto the gin yard."
Olton CO-OP Gin is ginning about 1,350 bales per day. As of Jan. 10, Olton CO-OP had ginned more than 60,500 bales with about 2,500 modules on the yard yet to be ginned. "We're about three-quarters of the way through," reported Breedlove. "It's been quite a season. But our producers have persevered and we've been working diligently right along with them."
The late season has caused producers to look to gins with a higher ginning capacity and as a result, Olton CO-OP Gin has seen an increase in its customer base. "We've had producers from as far as Lubbock call us to pick up their modules," Breedlove said. "There's been a real sense of urgency on behalf of the producers, and understandably so, to get the cotton ginned and the check in the bank. And we've been able to provide that for many new customers. We're grateful for the business and hope they'll return next season."
And while Breedlove guesstimated that most producers would be finished stripping by Christmas, wet weather prolonged this harvest/ginning season into the New Year.
"Before the weather hit this fall, we were hoping to gin around 100,000 bales and beat our record of near 90,000 bales in 2003. But the adverse weather has changed the weight and quality, so we're not sure what to expect in the end," Breedlove said. The vast majority of Olton CO-OP's 45,000 acres have been harvested.
"It's been an unusual season," Breedlove said. "We started late and won't finish until the end of January. Some gins won't be finished until March or around Spring Break." While producers were grateful to be harvesting again, they continued to be confronted with adversity.
"Stripping was slow and the ends were wet," said Stephen Steen, who farms near Hale Center and gins with Olton CO-OP Gin. "We had a lot of weeds off of this CRP and that really slowed us down."
On a "normal" year, Steen said he averages about 50 to 60 acres per day with his 4-row cotton stripper but because of the tumble weeds, he was only able to strip about 20 acres.
Humid nighttime weather proved to be an obstacle as well. "It would have helped if we had had dry weather at night so we could run longer. But we were only able to run from about 12 [noon] to 8:30 [p.m.]," said Steen.
In Steen's 19-year farming career he only remembered one other time-1991-when he harvested so late in the season, but he said, he had never seen it, "this wet for this long before."
Muddy conditions also slowed Olton producer and Olton CO-OP Gin stockholder Craig DeBerry and his crew. "Cotton stripping went alright; it was just having to deal with the mud. The mud seemed to be harder on the boll buggy than on the stripper."
The late harvest and slow progression had producers like Steve Graham, also of Olton, hiring custom harvesters to help speed up the process. "I hired out much more than I normally do," said Graham, who also gins with Olton CO-OP Gin. "This was not the year to wait on getting your cotton out."
While cotton yields looked very promising in October, in spite of low micronaires due to insufficient heat units, the weathered, strung-out cotton had farmers seeing lower grades and yields.
"There's a lot more color in the cotton," described Breedlove. "The grades have come down a little, which is normal, but I think producers were just been glad to get it harvested and into modules."
The adverse weather also put today's high-performing cottonseed varieties to the test. Steen, who produces dryland and irrigated cotton, found his dryland Beltwide 30 to be strung out of the boll pretty badly but his FiberMax 989 and 960 strung out less and looking pretty good. "It was strung out at the bottom. It wasn’t the whole boll, just a few locks."
DeBerry said his FiberMax 989 cotton was a lot looser in the boll and that the mic was worse on this variety. "Low mics result from low heat units and therefore a loss in weight," explained DeBerry. "I bet our yields experienced at least a 10 percent loss due to the weather. There's no question that this cotton would have done much better before all of this weather hit."
As for the 2005 season, Graham said he doesn't plan on doing anything too differently. "I might plant earlier – the earlier planted cotton seems to have done better. And I might plant both picker and stripper varieties. My picker varieties are strung out but I didn't lose much on the ground. I'm not convinced that I lost that much, so I'm not ready to quit the picker varieties."