Unpredictable weather has become almost predictable for Alabama farmers, whose hopes for a bountiful harvest were dashed by mid-season drought only to be renewed by late-summer rains.
“Cotton, with the recent rains, looks like it’s got pretty good potential right now. My guess would be in the 900-pound (per acre) range,” said Madison County farmer Pat Brown, a partner in Tate Farms. “We’re hoping for 30-40 bushels (per acre) on the soybeans, but the heat and dry weather was rough on dryland (non-irrigated) corn. From June 10 to about July 10, we didn’t get any rain.”
Brown’s story is typical of the state’s row-crop farmers, who’ve grown accustomed to unusual weather. Over the past several years, cold spring temperatures, chronic drought and soggy harvest seasons have made agriculture in Alabama an adventure.
This year was no different. By mid-July, 92 percent of the state was in a drought, and the corn crop was in shambles. Farmers from the Tennessee Valley to the Wiregrass feared their cotton, peanuts and soybeans were doomed to a similar fate. But by early September, only 35 percent of the state remained in a drought, and timely rainfall had revived their prospects for a decent crop.
“The cotton looks good at this point,” said Blount County farmer Jimmy Miller. “I think we have potential for a lot of 2-bale (per acre) cotton. If we can get it to open and harvest without a lot of rain, it will look good.”
Miller, who is among an increasing number of north Alabama farmers planting peanuts, said tropical conditions in August have been the biggest challenge.
“The peanut crop looks good except for the problem we’ve had with white mold because of the hot, humid weather and wet nights,” Miller said. “Barring losing a big percentage from white mold, I think we’re still looking at 2-ton (per acre) peanuts. We won’t know until we get it in the truck, but the potential is there.”
According to the Alabama Agricultural Statistics Service, 86 percent of the state’s peanut crop was in good-to-excellent condition as of Sept. 9; 60 percent of the cotton crop was in that range with another 36 percent in fair condition; and 64 percent of the soybeans were good to excellent with 31 percent rated as “fair.”
More than 30 percent of the corn crop, however, was poor to very poor. Miller said his corn crop averaged 60-80 bushels per acre, down from 120-130 bushels in an average year.
“June killed it,” he said. “I could show you little ears that had grain on them, but it was like popcorn grains. The ear didn’t get very long; the shuck got longer, but that’s all that developed. We’re fortunate because so many places’ yields are below that. I spoke with someone from Corpus Christi, Texas, who said he averaged 7 1/2 bushels per acre.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture forecasts national corn production to fall to 10.7 billion bushels. If the average yield comes in at 122.8 bushels per acre as forecasted, it would be the smallest average yield since 2003. The effects of widespread drought were somewhat offset because U.S. farmers planted the most corn in 75 years.
Meanwhile, Brown said this year’s fickle weather reinforces the importance of water management. At Tate Farms, about 90 percent of the corn crop is irrigated. Brown expects the irrigated corn to yield 250-300 bushels per acre, compared to 50-100 bushels for the non-irrigated corners and dryland fields.
“We are firm believers in irrigation. To us, the best capital investment we can make is in irrigation,” he said. “We’ve always believed in irrigation, and on a year like this, you can go a long way toward paying for an irrigation system in one year.”