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Missouri ranks near the bottom when it comes to cotton production in the U.S., but considering cotton is only grown in five counties, Bobby Skeen, spokesman for trade group The Cotton Board, says its acreage is impressive.
This year, Bootheel farmers will plant about 400,000 acres of cotton, Skeen said. Last year about 375,000 acres were planted. The only other state projected to increase its cotton production in 2012 is South Carolina. Every other cotton-growing state will decrease its acres this year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Agriculture Statistics Service.
"Missouri cotton growers are blessed with great growing situations in the Bootheel region, because the majority of ground is irrigated, which really helps with overall crop consistency," Skeen said.
Crop rotation may be one factor in the increase in cotton acres this year in Missouri, he said.
Prices may be leading farmers in other states to plant corn or soybeans instead of cotton. Cotton prices have dropped in the past month, falling from 93 cents per pound in late April to 82 cents per pound in recent trading, said Jon Devine, chief agricultural economist for Cotton Inc., another trade group.
This year is shaping up to be a challenging one for Southeast Missouri cotton farmers. Extremely dry weather coupled with several varieties of hungry insects and weeds resistant to herbicides are all causing problems, said Andrea Phillips, cotton specialist at the University of Missouri Delta Research Center in Portageville, Mo.
Pemiscot, New Madrid and Dunklin counties are already considered to be in a severe drought, according to the USDA's Drought Monitor. Scott and Stoddard counties are in the midst of a moderate drought. In the past month, most Southeast Missouri counties received less than one inch of rain.
"There's still lots of cotton that has not been planted because it's been too dry. Some places are trying to irrigate, to get the seeds up, but that's not a normal practice," said Mike Milam, agronomy specialist with the Dunklin County University of Missouri Extension office.
As of May 20, about 79 percent of Missouri's cotton had been planted, according to the USDA. Farmers reported 17 percent of it in poor condition, 45 percent in fair condition and 37 percent in good condition.
Cotton has a much higher input cost than other crops, such as corn or soybeans, said Rick Faulkner, who has about 1,000 acres of cotton near Miner, Mo.
"Since cotton equipment is pretty specific, you have to use that equipment the best you can. You can't do anything else with a cotton picker but pick cotton," Faulkner said.
Timing is also critical with cotton.
"There's a certain window of opportunity to do certain things, and you have to catch those windows," Faulkner said. "Corn and soybeans are more forgiving."
Cotton is also plagued by more pests than other crops, creating more costs for farmers. A tiny bug called a thrip will suck a cotton plant dry, and thrips have already been reported this season in Southeast Missouri, Phillips said.
Red spiders usually attack cotton later in the season, but this year they've already been seen in area fields, she said.
Budworms and bowl worms also cause problems in cotton crops.
In recent years, pigweed, which is resistant to herbicides, has been a struggle for cotton farmers, too, Philips said.
All of the cotton planted in Missouri is the upland variety, often used to make T-shirts and socks. Compared to other states, Missouri cotton has been shown to be slightly above the U.S. average grades on upland cotton, Skeen said.
U.S. cotton is highly sought after by China, Turkey and Mexico, he said, with China being the largest importer.
Missouri's growing season is longer than that in some states, helping create stronger and longer cotton fibers, Milam said.
"Mills are looking or the best strength and the best quality to make the best material. A shorter season sometimes doesn't have all the characteristics everyone is looking for," he said.