“This year, we’re going to have so many early bolls that are fully mature, we are looking forward to having the highest quality cotton that we’ve raised,” Leahy said with an enthusiasm not often expressed this year for southwest Kansas crops.
That may sound strange, considering the worsening drought I just mentioned. But one other thing changed since my last visit – it got really hot!
“Because of all the extra heat, we stay fairly warm at night and get very hot in the daytime,” Leahy said.
The thermometer reached 97 degrees as we walked the field. Fortunately, I picked a good day to be in the field – it was 106 the day before.
In spite of the dry weather, Leahy’s cotton fields have benefited from the record-setting summer temperatures. Cotton, as a heat-intensive crop, likes to grow in temperatures over 60 degrees. Leahy said the area is way ahead of schedule on its average heat units, and they still have the rest of August and September.
Cotton: from square to fruit
From a pin head square, it takes about 16 days for the plant to bloom into a white flower. Then about four days later, after pollinating, the flower dries up and takes on a purplish color. The boll, or fruit, then matures for about 45 days and ultimately reveals the cotton inside. (Photos by Eric Durban/Harvest Public Media)
The extra heat units have accelerated the growth of the plants and helped develop more bolls (check out the accompanying pictures), which hopefully will lead to what Leahy expects to be his highest yields in 10 years of growing cotton.
Normally his cotton fields don’t experience enough heat units after Aug. 15 to turn a pin head square into high quality fiber.
“It could be this year that we could go clear to the 25th of August and a white flower will turn into high quality cotton.”
Leahy grows cotton on the northern end of the cotton belt, so his growing season is shorter than fellow cotton farmers farther south. For him, the more heat earlier the better.
That provides plenty of time for the cotton fruit to ripen. No, cotton fruit won’t be joining the apples and bananas in your kitchen, rather it’s just a term (brush up with this cotton dictionary) to describe the boll that will crack open and reveal the cotton. The funny thing is the boll actually does look like a lime.
My shoes kicked up dust as Leahy and I walked among the cotton plants on one of his irrigated circles. Leahy planted dryland cotton as well, but said that those fields are so spotty he doesn’t expect much yield to come from them.
Yet, that’s where those prices I mentioned earlier come into play. They’re down, but not out. Even a spotty field is profitable to harvest. Current cotton prices are hovering a little over a dollar per pound, more than a dollar down from record highs in March.
“It’s still way higher than it’s ever been in the 10 or 11 years we’ve been raising cotton, and that feels good,” Leahy remarked on current price levels.
Leahy said last year he averaged 80-85 cents across the farm, but for many years before that he got around 45 cents a pound.
As rain continues to elude Seward County fields, the U.S Drought Monitor has kicked up its rating of the area two notches from “severe” drought to “exceptional” drought, the highest drought rating.
The drought has forced Leahy to water a bit more than he’d like. With a drought disaster declaration issued by the USDA for more than half of Kansas counties, Leahy was able to apply for a drought emergency term permit.
The permit allowed him to dip into his 2012 water allocation, and overdraw for 2011. But it’s water that Leahy can’t get back.
He’ll reap the benefits of a better crop this year, but may have implications for next year’s growing season.
“So next year, if we don’t get good winter moisture and get some rain next spring, we don’t plant as many acres,” Leahy said.
For more than a month he’s been running the irrigation system 24/7. Each pass around the crop circle takes 3 ½ days, putting .90 inches of water on the crop.
“I think it’ll still be our best cotton yields,” Leahy said. “But they’re not going to be where we might have expected if we had gotten one or two general rains across our all of our acres, I don’t know what we would have been looking at.”
Next up for Leahy is harvest season, where he’ll experience the cotton fruits of his labor. I’ll see you there.