Published on 11/10/97

Harvesttime Rains Cost Cotton Farmers Millions

Georgia cotton farmers have lost another $40 million to $50 million to excess late-season rains, says a University of Georgia agricultural scientist.

"The rain the weekend of Oct. 25-26 adversely affected the Georgia cotton crop," said Steve M. Brown, an Extension Service cotton scientist with the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

"If we had gotten this rain in August," he said, "we could have seen a $100 million increase in value, instead of these continuing losses."

Rains totaling 5 inches to 8 inches fell on most of the Georgia cotton belt through the last October weekend. Brown said some farmers reported 60 mph winds, too.

The hard rain and wind did knock some cotton off the stalk, Brown said. He said the biggest cotton loss, though, was to quality.

"We're estimating a $30 to $50 quality loss per 480-pound bale," he said. Adding to those losses, cotton already picked and waiting in modules to be picked up could sustain water damage, too -- about $600 per 15-bale module.

Rainwater damages cotton fibers and turns them grayish, cutting their value. When cotton bolls first open, the fibers are a brilliant white -- its most valuable color. Unstained cotton fetches the highest price.

Processors must treat rain-stained fibers to make them white again before the fiber can be spun into threads for clothing. That extra step adds to their costs. So the price farmers get is discounted based on the extra processing costs.

Brown said many modules, the densely packed cotton stored in the fields, got wet during the heavy rains. Others are soaking up water from the saturated ground around them. No matter how the lint gets wet, cotton can rot quickly.

Brown tells farmers to get wet modules ginned as quickly as possible to avoid further losses. The value of each module, he said, is at least $5,000.

Almost half of Georgia's 1.4 million acres of cotton remain unharvested. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Oct. 1 yield estimate has cotton at 702 pounds per acre, down from 736 pounds earlier in the season.

Brown said drought through August and September, then heavy rain in late September, brought the estimates down. "At this point, we'll be fortunate to average close to 700 pounds per acre," he said.

Whatever the yields, market prices are dropping, said Don Shurley, a CAES extension economist.

Other factors contribute to the price drop. "The yield declines in the Southeast are being offset by yield increases elsewhere in the cotton belt," Shurley said. "So the national yield is stable."

Worldwide stock markets affect cotton prices, too. The recent wild fluctuations rooted in southeast Asian markets indicate their economies are weakening. As economies in that region lose strength, so does their ability to buy U.S. cotton.

"Those two factors combined with the normal pattern of price decline through the season are all contributing to a slight price drop," Shurley said.

Prices for December cotton entered November at 70 cents to 72 cents per pound. Shurley said contracting cotton for later sale and paying storage costs could prove profitable for farmers.

Farmers face further losses in the hidden second cotton crop: the seeds. Last year, cottonseed earned the state's farmers $77 million, adding 10 percent to the overall value of Georgia cotton.

Wet weather can cause seeds to sprout, dropping their feed value for livestock. "So really," Brown said, "farmers lose money on two counts in a situation like this."

The combination of soggy fields, humid, foggy mornings and shortened days is pushing harvest back. "I expect we'll see farmers harvesting cotton well past Thanksgiving," Brown said.

The potential for more losses grows every day. Soggy fields make farmers unable to pick cotton and raise the risk of further weather damage.