Georgia cotton growers are starting the 2023 season with a boost from near-record-breaking yields last year. The United States Department of Agriculture released final yield data in late May, confirming the second-highest yields on record, as forecasted by University of Georgia cotton experts in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.
“Our final number last year was 1,002 pounds per acre,” said Camp Hand, assistant professor in the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences and cotton specialist for UGA Cooperative Extension. “The record was set in 2012 with 1,091 pounds per acre, so it was a very close second.”
Cotton ranks No. 1 in production value among row and forage crops in Georgia, and second in the nation according to the 2023 Ag Snapshots report produced by the UGA Center for Agribusiness and Economic Development. On average, cotton contributes more than $1 billion to the state’s economy each year.
Although planted acres will likely be down by about 100,000 acres this year due to normal crop rotation, Hand hopes cotton growers will see another good year for yields – weather-depending.
“Cotton is one of those crops that is highly dependent on the weather,” said Hand. “Much of last year’s success can be attributed to the exceptional environmental conditions we experienced throughout the season.”
While higher-than-normal temperatures last June may have set other crops back, Hand believes it was a contributing factor to high cotton yields.
“The heat early in the season slowed down plant growth and forced the plant to conserve energy and redirect plant nutrients and resources into fruit retention. A cotton crop only retains about 40% of the fruit that it produces over the entire season, as it can only support a certain fruit load," he said. "Because plants slowed down in response to the higher temperatures, growers didn’t need to apply as much plant growth regulator, which had positive, long-lasting impacts for the rest of the season.”
Cotton typically grows throughout August and has fully matured by September when the harvest season begins.
The weather at harvest is critical, Hand explained. Overcast, rainy and humid weather prevails in Georgia during late August into early September, increasing the risk of crop loss to diseases such as boll rot and a condition called hardlock, which occurs when a boll opens but remains damp and fails to fluff out normally.
“The weather is honestly what can make or break a season. There’s only so much we can do as researchers. A lot of the way things shake out has a lot more to do with the specific conditions of the year,” said Hand.
Due to cotton’s nature and weather variability, members of the UGA Cotton Team have a unique relationship with growers, with near-constant monitoring and regular information sharing to help keep growers and industry stakeholders apprised of the latest recommendations through their newsletter, blog, trainings and direct communications with industry members and growers.
“Members of the cotton team can’t assume credit for such high yields last year, the environmental conditions we had were fantastic,” said Hand, “but I will say that some of the things that we’re researching, such as new varieties and pest management techniques definitely help put growers in the position to take advantage of those good environmental conditions and capitalize on them.”
Fortuitously, market prices for cotton were at a near all-time high last year, further benefiting growers, Hand said. “It’s usually one or the other, either high yield or high prices, so it was a great year for cotton all around.”
Last year, contracts went for between $0.95-$1.25 per pound – a great price for cotton, said Hand. This year, contracts are hovering between $0.80-$0.85 per pound, he added.
“In the meantime, I’m out driving around the state, walking through fields, writing blog posts and talking with my colleagues to get the best, most timely information out the door for growers to take advantage of whatever conditions we have this year,” Hand said.