Clint Abernathy stands in the turnrow of a dryland cotton field and watches an on-board round bale stripper chew through an expanse of almost pure white. “This is the best dryland cotton I’ve ever made,” he says. He estimates this field will make 2 bales per acre.
He’s just left an irrigated field, where three round bale pickers were making short work of what looked to be close to 4 bale cotton. “Irrigated cotton prospects are mixed,” he says. “Some of it isn’t as good as I had hoped.”
A few fields were set back by bacterial blight, which has been an issue across southwest Oklahoma acreage, says Randy Boman, Oklahoma State University Extension state cotton leader and resident director of the OSU Southwest Research and Extension Center at Altus.
Abernathy figures about one-third of his irrigated acreage had some bacterial blight. Damage varied from a significant loss to only a slight to moderate yield reduction. He says one irrigated field with heavy bacterial blight made only about 2 bales per acre.
“But that’s extreme,” he says. “Some of the infected fields have much less damage and are making 3 bales or so. Some fields were hit hard; a few areas had more rain. I’ve never had bacterial blight before, and there was nothing we could do.”
DRYLAND ‘BEST EVER’
Justin Abernathy, Clint’s oldest son, talks about the crop as he maneuvers one of the big pickers across the irrigated field. “Most of the irrigated cotton looks pretty good,” he says. “It’s mixed because of the blight, but it’s a good crop — and the dryland is the best I’ve ever seen.”
The Abernathys farm near Altus, in the southwest corner of the state. Justin’s brother, Jarod, and Clint’s son-in-law, Evan Coppock, complete the family enterprise.
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Justin says the field that was picking close to 4 bales was a variety resistant to the blight, DP1518. “We will be careful with variety selection next year,” Clint says. “We don’t want any more surprises.”
Boman says good yields — record-breaking, perhaps — won’t be unusual across the state. It has been a good, but unusual, year for cotton production. “We had two crops coming along,” he says. “April was wet, with just under 4 inches of rain. Farmers started planting and temperatures shot up to 99 degrees around May 10, then collapsed, and it got really cool, with highs less than 60 degrees. We had some good May rainfall at the same time, and we needed it; everything begun to dry out.” He says no-till cotton “was in good shape.”
“We had 10 days of below normal temperature, and then from May 23 to 24 it warmed up, and planters started rolling again. We had about 15 percent fewer heat units than normal in May. We saw extremes — above average temperatures for 10 days, below average temperatures for 10 days, and another 10 days above average into August. We also had some above normal days in June.”
He says some farmers in Tillman County had to push to get cotton planted by the insurance cut-off date because of excess rain.
MODERATE GROWING SEASON
Overall, it was a moderate growing season, Boman says. “We only had five days with temperatures above 100 degrees around Altus, and we had about normal July rainfall.” He recalls that the 2011 growing season registered 99 days above 100 degrees and rainfall was almost non-existent. “This year’s five days above 100 degrees is unbelievable. That’s been good news — no oppressive heat and no low humidity.”
But the combination of humidity and temperature in July created an ideal environment for bacterial blight. Temperatures in August were a bit cooler than normal, Boman says. “High temperatures were more affected than the nighttime lows.” September and into October were about normal.
He expects Oklahoma will make a lot of cotton this fall, thanks to a combination of exceptional yields and increased acreage. “National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) estimates 300,000 acres planted in Oklahoma — that’s’ the most since 2011. Boll Weevil Eradication confirms that figure, with about 295,000 planted acres. NASS estimates 285,000 acres will be harvested.”
NASS also estimates a record yield. “We averaged 876 pounds per acre last year, dryland and irrigated,” Boman says. “That was a record, up 60 pounds from the previous high. NASS estimates the 2016 yield at 960 pounds per acre. Rainfall was a blessing.”
Kenneth Helton, assistant manager of the Cotton Grower’s Cooperative Gin at Altus, expects a record number of bales, a significant bump from last year’s record 108,000-bale crop. He thinks the gin could process upward of 120,000 before the crop is done. “We’re going full bore — running 24/7,” he says.
Farmers coming into the gin to check markets and crop prospect agree that it looks like a good crop. Dryland cotton, they say, looks particularly promising.
Justin Abernathy puts the crop in perspective as he rolls across the irrigated field, watching the yield monitor jump from 1,900 to as high as 2,100 pounds per acre at times. He says the gauge may not be precise.
“Overall, it’s a good crop. The stuff we got at first was not so great, but it’s been going up ever since. The dryland will average better than anything we’ve ever had.” He says the challenges with bacterial blight hurt some fields, and they also fought pigweed. “Warrant, applied pre-emerge, looked good. It’s a no brainer — we spray it and let it do its thing.”
All the dryland average is no-till, so they had transitioned away from pre-emerge herbicides and relied on Roundup. “We’re back to it now,” Justin says.
“We’re about half-way through harvesting now,” he says. “We’ve just got started on dryland.”
“We’re having good weather to get the crop picked — a nice stretch of gorgeous weather, “Clint says.
That 4-bale yield goal has been elusive, but the Abernathys aren’t certain that some of their irrigated fields won’t top the 1 ton mark before they’re done.