Last week’s Hurricane Irene, which killed at least 40 people and cut power to millions of homes and businesses along the eastern seaboard, also dumped heavy rain on nearly all of the cotton in Virginia and North Carolina. But it could have been worse.
“If it had been two weeks later, it would have been more detrimental than it was,” says James Patterson, merchandizer with APEX, York, S.C. Only 15 percent of the bolls in North Carolina and 9 percent in Virginia were open when Irene hit, according to USDA’s latest Crop Progress report. Last year at this time, 40 percent of the bolls in North Carolina had already opened. Heavy rains when cotton bolls are open can substantially reduce yields.
“We’ve had anywhere from 8 to 16 inches of rain across the cotton area, which definitely wasn’t welcome,” notes Patterson. One private survey in North Carolina and Virginia estimated a loss of about 150 pounds of lint per acre in some fields. If yields in those fields were on track to produce 1,000 pounds of lint per acre, the loss equates to about a 15% drop in yield.
“Early estimates are that there will be some yield loss,” says Peter Schlee, APEX, Hamburg, N.Y. He estimates that yield losses on fields that had damage will be between 5 and 15 percent. “Some cotton was laid down on its side where the winds were particularly strong,” Schlee says. Flattened cotton plants that are unable to recover cannot be picked efficiently, he adds. Other potential problems include bolls that have prematurely cracked open and bolls that have dropped off the plants.
Schlee notes that cottonseed prices in North Carolina rose between $5 and $8/ton in Irene’s wake. On Tuesday, October-December cottonseed in North Carolina was priced near $278/ton. A week ago, Schlee says it was selling for $265 to $270/ton.
The big story, though, continues to be drought in Texas where more than half of the nation’s cotton is grown. USDA estimates that as of August 28, 60% of the Texas cotton crop was rated in poor or very poor condition. In Oklahoma, a state that produced 422,000 bales of cotton or a little more than 2 percent of the nation’s crop last year, 92% of the cotton is rated poor or very poor. Nationally, 41% of the cotton was in poor or very poor condition.
Cotton futures closed at just over $1.05/lb. on Monday. “People think that the new norm for cotton prices is now over $1 or $1.20/lb.,” says Tom Wedegaertner director of cottonseed research and marketing for Cotton Incorporated, New York. That compares with an average price of about 60 to 75 cents per pound from about 1998 to 2008.
This year, cotton futures prices peaked at over $2.09/lb. on March 34 due to heavy demand from China. This year China, the world’s largest producer and user of cotton, could produce about 7.9 million tons of cotton, a 10 percent increase over last year.