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Cotton Shines In Oklahoma

• By Seth Byrd,
Oklahoma State University •

oklahoma cotton on drip

This drip-irrigated field near Altus, Oklahoma, was indicative of the state’s favorable production year — photo by Seth Byrd

Like any cotton season, 2020 was a roller coaster in Oklahoma, although we tended to avoid the extremes experienced in the two previous years. Coming off a hot and dry 2018 followed by a cool and wet spring and a hot and dry summer in 2019, this season was slightly more moderate.

Most of the state received a couple of good planting windows in May and early June. They were preceded by rain to provide adequate planting moisture for timely stand establishment. Some areas received excessive rain in mid- to late May, but overall planting operations were completed with few instances of conditions that completely prevented planting.

Temperatures soared in June with little to no rainfall for most of our cotton acres, creating challenging conditions for early season growth. Damage from a windstorm in early June severely injured or totally destroyed the young crop in some northwestern areas.

Sporadic rainfall benefitted portions of the crop, particularly the west-central area of the state during June, while arid conditions persisted into July for parts of the southwest.

High temperatures continued as the cotton crop reached flowering by mid-July. This month also produced multiple significant rains throughout Oklahoma. The precipitation occurred during a critical growth stage and supported fruit retention and relieved strain on irrigation during a time of peak water demand.

Rolling Into August

Warm temperatures and intermittent showers continued into early August. At this point, despite the hit-and-miss planting windows and hot and dry June, the irrigated crop entered the last few weeks of summer in excellent condition.

Expectations were extremely high for the dryland crop that had rebounded from the rough start. Many were thinking 2-bale yields would be the dryland norm this year.

Then, as is common in the Southwest, the inevitable dry spell set in. During August, much of the Oklahoma crop suffered various levels of water stress. Contrary to the beginning of the season, the southwest portions of the state generally fared slightly better than areas farther north.

The dryland crop, which had been so impressive up to this point, began to suffer. By late August, boll and square shed could be observed in multiple areas. While a widespread system bought rain to most of the production area in the final days of August, it was too little too late. It was evident that the high expectations many had for the dryland crop wouldn’t carry into September.

Cool Snap, Ice Storm

The return of rain in late August and early September was welcome. On Sept. 9, daytime high temperatures across the western part of Oklahoma ranged from the high 50s to low 40s. They didn’t return to normal levels for two to three days.

The cool weather occurred during a period when most of the harvestable boll load was going through fiber lengthening or thickening processes critical to producing high-quality fiber. It’s likely the abbreviated cold snap contributed to the struggles many experienced while trying to achieve optimal boll opening with harvest aids even with favorable conditions present through mid-October.

The crop had one more hurdle to clear as an ice storm hammered the state at the end of October. Fortunately, the lint fallout and stringout issues that resulted weren’t as severe as initially feared.

By the end of November, harvest had mostly wrapped up. Despite the year’s challenges, favorable conditions experienced during critical growth stages supported mostly above-average yields. Even the dryland crop, which looked so good in July but struggled through August, seemed to survive the year better than expected.

There have been some instances of low micronaire, likely evidence that the early September cold snap affected the crop more than most of us predicted.

While 2020 seemed to throw everything it had at the Oklahoma cotton crop — wind, drought, heat and ice — it turned out to be a surprisingly favorable production year overall. However, I’m sure we would all welcome a slightly less eventful 2021.