CHICAGO (B)--The cotton crop in Texas' Rio Grande Valley is in great shape with the harvest set to start three weeks earlier than normal, according to a Texas cotton specialist.

Traditionally the bridge spanning the gap between old- and new-crop marketing years, this season's southern Texas crop promises to keep pressure on New York October cotton futures.

"October is a bastard month," said Rogers Varner Jr., of Varner Bros., with the contract swinging on both old- and new-crop balance sheet concerns.

Prospects of an early harvest and big yields could signal weakness in Oct, analysts said.

Down near the United States-Mexico border, farmers have ideal growing conditions for cotton.

John Norman, an extension agent for the Rio Grande Valley, said the cotton crop was looking exceptionally good.

"It's one of the better crops we've seen in a while," Norman said. "The dryland crop yields should be very good for us, averaging 600 pounds per acre. So, if dryland is 600 pounds, the bulk of irrigated cotton should do even better."

Norman said the average yield for the

area was around 500 pounds per acre.

The crop was looking so good, Norman said, that he was worried something might happen between now and harvest.

"It's not in the gin yet, and anything is possible," he said, citing past years when pests, high winds or late rains wreaked havoc before the cotton wa s safely out of the field.

Norman estimated the region's acreage this year at 200,000, compared with 250,000 acres the previous year. He said low cotton prices had raised sorghum acreage at the expense of cotton.

Spring began with unusually warm weather, Norma said, launching the crop's stellar season.

"We started out with extremely warm weather in March," Norman said.

Heat units for March were 70% above a five-year average, 15% higher in April and up 22% in May.

"The crop germinated well," Norman said. "We got a full stand in four to five days instead of the usual 10. Then in early May, we got perfectly timed rainfall, and it's been raining until last week."

Defoliation in early planted fields is starting, with harvest expected to begin in a week to 10 days, three weeks ahead of normal.

Pests have been a big challenge this year, forcing farmers to spend more on insecticides.

"This year has been the 'reincarnation of the boll weevil,'" Norman said. "They're back with a vengeance, and a lot of money has been spent. This has been the most expensive weevil control in the past 10 years. Mostly it's a matter of cost, though there's certainly been some yield loss."

Though the harvest is starting early, it should last through August, and later-planted the fields will need more rain to keep yield potentials high.

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