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Lingering Alabama drought yields mixed harvest results

alabama cotton

Photo courtesy Alabama Extension

Widespread drought continues in Alabama, as nearly 84% of the state is in severe drought. In fact, 55% of the state’s soil and subsoil moisture is reported to be “very short.”

Even with these conditions, producers are still hard at work bringing in this year’s crop. According to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, 96% of the corn planted in Alabama has been harvested. Harvest of other crops—including cotton, peanuts and soybeans—is still underway.

Cotton

Alabama Extension cotton agronomist Steve Brown said though the weather is proving difficult for other harvests and for livestock producers, this is year’s cotton crop has fluffed nicely.

“Early yield reports have been better than what I expected,” Brown said. “I’ve heard some very good yields—more than 1,500-plus pounds per acre—from a few well-irrigated fields. I’ve also seen dryland acres that have picked 500 to 1,000 pounds per acre.”

Still, he said there are those producers with a “worst case scenario,” bringing in slightly under 300 pounds per acre to slightly over 500 pounds per acre.

The crop progress report indicates 92% of cotton bolls were open this week, compared to 87% at the same time last year. While the boll opening numbers are not far apart, 25% of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s estimated 535,000 acres planted have been harvested compared to 17% in 2018.

“One important factor is that the prevailing dry conditions over the past couple of months have resulted in minimal boll rot and excellent conditions for crop opening,” Brown said. “The crop is opening at a very, very rapid pace because of the lack of rainfall. This should be a speedy harvest.”

Brown said it is difficult to assess the impact of drought on cotton yield at this point. USDA’s August and September estimates had Alabama production at 942 pounds per acre. He said it did not change from month to month.

“Because of the sustained heat and drought over many areas of the state, my estimation of yield is 800 to 850 pounds per acre,” he said. “In many areas the crop has been severely stressed for weeks. If my numbers are correct, that would place us over $40 million below USDA’s projection.”

William Birdsong, an Alabama Extension regional crops agent who works in the Wiregrass region, said cotton harvest is running wide open.

However, Birdsong said farmers did plant a lot of cotton early and the heat units have been high, so maturity is on schedule and ahead due these factors.

Tyler Sandlin, an Alabama Extension agronomic crops specialist in north Alabama, said the yields have been just as good as the crop looks.

“Average yields from what growers are reporting have been between 1,100 and 1,500 pounds per acre,” he said. “Around 40% of the cotton acres have been harvested so far.”

Corn and soybeans

Harvested corn acres are right on par with 2018 numbers, with 96%  of the corn crop in Alabama harvested—compared to 94 in 2019. Kim Wilkins, an Extension regional crops agent in Baldwin County, said she has producers in her area with corn so severely drought damaged, that it may not be harvested.

Andy Page, an Extension regional agent in the northwestern part of the state, said the majority of corn harvest is complete. Average dryland corn yields were between 160 and 200 bushels per acre. Those who received rain at the right time were closer to the 200-bushel average.

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While there are lower numbers of soybean acres in Alabama in 2019, 40%  of the soybeans are harvested. This is nearly doubled in comparison to 23% harvested in 2018.

Sandlin said the weather through September and early October has felt more like West Texas weather.

“Full season soybeans have been around average yields for this area at 50-plus bushels per acre,” Sandlin said. “The double cropped soybeans planted behind wheat seem to be a little below average due to the hot and dry conditions we have been having since corn harvest began.”

Peanuts

Peanut harvest is in full swing. Harvest observations range from “surprisingly good” to “very difficult.”

Wilkins said some peanuts look surprisingly good.

“I’ve been surprised by the resilience of some peanut fields,” Wilkins said. “However, in the heavier soils they have had a hard time digging. The ground is so hard. Sandy soils are harvesting fairly easily but some northern counties are having a harder time. In southern (sandy) counties the dry weather has let them harvest quickly.”

Brandon Dillard, who is also an Extension agronomic crops agent, said Geneva County producers are having a difficult time harvesting peanuts.

“The dry weather is making harvest very difficult,” Dillard said. “Most are saying they are getting four to 15 acres out of a set of blades on inverters. This adds a lot of money to the cost of an already expensive operation.”

The NASS projections estimate nearly 56%  of this year’s peanuts have been harvested. This is significantly higher than the 27% harvested at this time last year.

Birdsong said early planted peanuts are yielding surprisingly good.

“There are some quality issues with aflatoxin for some producers,” Birdsong said. “The fear is that when it rains this quality issue will explode. Yields of later planted peanuts will be impacted more negatively due to drought.”

Birdsong said some producers can’t dig fields due to hard soil conditions.

“Some farmers are digging peanuts at night when vines are more turgid and peanut vines are not as drought stressed,” Birdsong said.

The Alabama Cooperative Extension System contributed this article.