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TUESDAY, AUGUST 14, 2007
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Triple-digit heat wave, cotton crop in August
High temperatures, exceptional drought conditions take toll on farms

By Paul Huggins
phuggins@decaturdaily.com · 340-2395

The exceptional drought and triple-digit heat will mean an early cotton-picking season.

Some Limestone County farmers plan to spray defoliant this week and begin harvesting next week, said Charlie Burmester, agronomist at Tennessee Valley Regional Extension Center in Belle Mina.

“We’ll be picking cotton in August. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that,” he said. He has been an agent in North Alabama for 28 years.

Monday’s high of 103 made it the sixth straight day at 100 or above. The combination of heat and the continued lack of rain also extended the geographical range of the exceptional drought.

It spread from covering 33 percent of Alabama on July 31 to 52 percent Aug. 7. It’s even spread into Georgia and Tennessee, now covering 22 percent and 13 percent of those states, respectively.

It could get worse.

The forecast calls for highs between 100 and 105 through Friday. If that holds true, the Decatur-Huntsville area will tie the record for 10 consecutive days of triple-digit temperatures, set in August 1952.

Perhaps the only relief in the past three days was that a cold front passed through Friday night and brought drier air.

Humidity during the weekend was below 25 percent, said Brian Carcione, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Huntsville.

Lower humidity means heat indexes are basically the same as the temperature. Humidity will start creeping back up Wednesday, hitting 30 percent Thursday and 37 percent Friday.

Starting Wednesday, heat indexes could range from 105 to 110 degrees, Carcione said.

As for rain relief, NWS computer models don’t show anything but a remote chance occurring Sunday or Monday, he said.

North Alabama farmers will remember 2007 as one of their worst years. Late freezes in April ruined nearly all the fruit crops as well as most of the corn and wheat.

Crops planted after the freeze have dealt with the worst drought in 100 years.

July, however brought normal rainfall, and cotton responded with a solid month of growth.

Burmester said some of the early planted cotton have mature bolls, but the August heat and drought caused them to drop small, immature bolls so there’s no reason to wait to harvest.

David Weaver, agronomy and soils professor at Auburn University, said the heat and drought don’t necessarily kill the plant, but they will stress it to a point where it stops growing and, more important, stops producing fruit. It will drop its flowers and young fruit as an act of survival.

The good news is that unlike corn or soybeans, cotton has a long length of time for when it can put on fruit, he said. So if rain does come, cotton crops could still put on some bolls.

“We usually harvest cotton at the first of September, but you can harvest at the end of October,” Weaver said.

Ronald Britnell, regional Extension agent in Hartselle, said the heat and drought also have cut into livestock production.

Animals eat less when it’s hot, so cattle are going to arrive at the stockyard weighing less than usual, he said.

And as pastures dry up, farmers could be scrambling for feed in winter, he added.

“If (rain relief) doesn’t happen pretty quick, we’ll be feeding hay to our cattle. That’s bad because that uses up our winter stock.

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