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Cotton growers see bugs, disease ahead of harvest

Arkansas cotton growers cope with pest problems, late disease as harvest time approaches

In this photo taken Sept. 5, 2012, cotton grows in a field near Coy, Ark. Arkansas cotton acreage is down sharply in 2013, putting pressure on the state's cotton gins. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston)

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) -- Arkansas cotton growers have watched their costs rise this season as bugs fed from the ground up and a fungus descended from above.

Corynespora leaf spot disease emerged late in the season, crop consultant David Hydrick said Thursday.

"I had fields where it just totally waylaid the cotton," he said.

The problems with bugs and disease, coupled with weeks of persistent rain earlier this summer in northeast Arkansas, mean it will be hard for some of the state's cotton growers to make a decent profit, Hydrick said.

Growers were also beset by thrips, a small, winged insect, early in the season and tarnished plant bugs further into the year.

"In the northeastern part of the state, where the majority of our cotton is grown, it was the worst plant bug pressure that we've ever seen," said Gus Lorenz, an entomologist with the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture.

Cotton acreage has fallen sharply in Arkansas, and that has worsened pest problems, in part because insects have fewer fields where they can feed, Lorenz said.

The National Agricultural Statistics Service estimates that 270,000 acres of cotton will be harvested in Arkansas this year. That's down by more than half from last year's 590,000 acres. In 2006, state growers planted nearly 1.2 million acres of cotton.

This year, Arkansas farmers planted about 1 million acres of corn, up from 710,000 acres last year.

In their early stages, tarnished plant bugs flourish in corn, and it took a tremendous amount of pesticide to keep them out of the cotton.

But Hydrick said the rain regularly washed away pesticides, making it nearly impossible to keep the plant bugs under control. And then the leaf spot disease struck.

"That leaf spot coming in just nailed us," Hydrick said.

Hydrick said most cotton farmers he works with harvested between 1,200 to 1,300 pounds per acre last year. This year, producers are looking at between 1,000 and 1,200 pounds per acre.

Most of the troublesome rain fell north of Interstate 40. South of the highway, some cropland is in severe drought. But on both sides of the highway, growers had to deal with rising prices for seed, fuel, fertilizer, pesticides and herbicides, Hydrick said.

Travis Faske, a plant pathologist with the university's Division of Agriculture, said growers who were untroubled this year by leaf spot need to be aware of it, especially if the 2014 early growing season is as wet as this year.

The fungus also affects soybeans, cucumbers, tomatoes and sweet potatoes. Faske said that with such a variety of hosts, it is likely the pathogen will be more common in 2014, if the environmental conditions are right.

Scott Stiles, an agricultural economist with the university, said one bright spot for growers is that the price of cotton rose unexpectedly this month.

"Prices for this year's crop have been surprisingly good. We had a brief period in August with cotton trading over 90 cents per pound," Stiles said.

The price peaked at 93.72 cents and had a low of about 83 cents.

Hydrick said that even with the favorable pricing, turning a profit will be tough.

The wet springtime forced growers to plant late, so the harvest is expected to extend into October. Until then, growers need dry conditions and high temperatures so the cotton can mature.

"We put more money in this crop than we'll ever get out of it," Hydrick said.