Despite a rocky start, the Arkansas cotton harvest appears poised for a record outcome, and the 2017 Arkansas soybean harvest will break state yield records if the USDA’s forecast holds up, said Jeremy Ross, extension soybean agronomist for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture.

Overall, the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service forecasts Arkansas cotton yields at 1.06 million bales in November, up 220,000 bales from a year earlier. That averages to 1,162 pounds of cotton per harvested acre, 87 pounds above 2016.

“We’re headed for an all-time record yield on cotton,” said Bill Robertson, extension cotton agronomist for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture.

Robertson said heavy rains kept tractors out of the fields during the heart of Arkansas’ cotton planting season from late April through early May. Some growers had their cotton planted before the rains drove them out of the fields, and then those early fields were hit hard by weeks of wet weather.

Growers who planted late, after fields dried out, started out behind the calendar, but well-timed late rains gave them a boost, Robertson said.

“At the end of most years, early cotton has generally been better because it took advantage of spring rains,” Robertson said. “But the last two years, the late cotton caught the timely rains, especially in northeastern counties.”

Robertson said cotton yields north of Interstate 40 have been high while yields south of there were average to a little better than average.

Despite the soggy start, Arkansas cotton acreage was up in 2017, Robertson said. Growers planted about 440,000 acres of upland cotton, an increase of more than 60,000 acres from 2016.

The extra acreage helped boost Arkansas’ cotton harvest. Robertson said cotton also benefitted from lighter disease pressure in 2017. Growers also adapted what they learned from similar weather patterns in 2016, he said, so plants were better managed for fertilizer and pest control.

All that cotton will likely have the state’s gins running until about Christmas, Robertson said. Ginning was finished by Dec. 1 in 2016.

Soybeans

The USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service forecasts Arkansas’ soybean harvest will be 175 million bushels, up 20 percent from 145.7 million bushels in 2016.

“We had nine fields that topped 100 bushels per acre,” Ross said. That tops the previous record of 7 fields that made 100 bushels per acre. “I see that as a kind of barometer of how good a year we had,” he said.

NASS reports that Arkansas soybean growers averaged 50 bushels an acre, up from 47 bushels per acre in 2016. Arkansas’ average also topped the national average soybean yield of 49.5 bushels per acre, down from 52 bushels last year.

Ross attributed the state’s soybean yield, in large part, to agreeable weather. Despite heavy rains that flooded some fields, especially along the Black River in Randolph County, most summer rains were timely, reducing irrigation needs. Cooler average temperatures also lessened irrigation need and helped minimize heat and drought stress on the plants.

“Several farmers told me they only had to irrigate five or six times,” Ross said. “They typically irrigate 10 or 11 times during growing season, so their watering needs were cut in half.”

The state soybean crop had to overcome some big problems this year. The top issue was off-target Dicamba drift, Ross said.

Most Dicamba symptoms occurred in northeast Arkansas, Ross said, but symptoms occurred in pockets of soybean fields in other areas. The good news was that most off-target problems occurred relatively early and resulted in little permanent damage. But not all growers were so fortunate. In areas where symptoms appeared during flowering, growers saw considerable yield loss.

“We saw yields all over the board because of off-target Dicamba,” Ross said. “Growers reported yields as low as 11 bushels per acre. But others didn’t think they lost any yield even though they had Dicamba symptoms early on.”

A severe outbreak of red-banded stinkbug late in the season damaged some fields, Ross said.

“They became an issue right at the end of the season,” Ross said. “We knew they’d show up, but we didn’t know the population would explode like it did and do the amount of damage we saw.”

The red-banded stinkbugs did a lot of damage largely because of when they showed up, Ross said. By the time the pests were in the fields, a lot of farmers had expended their pest control budgets and elected not to spray.

Ross would like to see a cold winter with several days of freezing to help knock down the stinkbug population. “If we have a mild winter, we’re going to see more trouble from them in 2018,” he said.

— Fred Miller is science editor with the U of A System Division of Agriculture.