Cotton finds a home in Blacklands

On the blacklands of eastern North Carolina, cotton has found a home. Milton Prince of Hyde County is one of the farmers who welcomed the second coming of cotton in the area in the early 1990s. He and a group of nine farmers are primarily responsible for two gins being in the area and the formation of a cooperative in 2000.

Since the early 1990s, this former corn, wheat and soybean producer has learned how to grow better-than-two-bales-to-the-acre cotton in this rich black soil.

Last season, he averaged 1,167 pounds of lint per acre on 2,650 acres.

One of the keys to that yield, he says, is the way he prepares the rows for planting.

The soils in Hyde County are only a shade or two shy of dark black. Pioneers and pirates dubbed this area the Blacklands.

These soils feature a high organic matter, 10-percent plus in most areas of the county. Cotton was the money crop in the area during the first part of the last century. In 1928, Beaufort County led North Carolina in cotton acreage.

Hold moisture well

When it rains, these Blackland soils hold moisture about like a bucket. “Anytime something stays in moisture, the soil is going to stay cooler,” Prince says. Add cold temperatures in spring to already cold, moist soils and the situation is one that doesn't sit well with cotton.

But Prince has found a way to work with the soil's nature, using minimum ridge-till.

“We built a bedding rig in the winter of 1996,” he says. “We put it in the field right behind shredding stalks and rip and bed the land and work the top of the row to firm it up.”

The rig has a ripper, middle busters, roller baskets and a roller.

In effect, this building and firming up the row helps to warm the soil and provide a good seed bed for the cotton.

“Last year, the cotton emerged after five days and got a good start,” Prince says.

This year, Prince started bedding up his land on Feb. 19.

Weed control on these blackland soils is a bit more complicated than in other soil types.

At burndown, Prince applies a quart of Roundup. At the first true-leaf stage, he sprays Roundup at a rate of a quart per acre. At the four-leaf stage, he'll apply over-the-top with another application of Roundup. One-fifth of a pound of ammonium sulfate is used as a surfactant with each Roundup application. Roundup is also direct applied when the plants are 12 inches tall and at layby, Prince says.

The reason for the multiple over-the-top applications, Prince says, goes back to the soil he's farming. “On these Blackland soils, weeds are like Indians at Custer's last stand: They just keep coming. Roundup is very effective.”

He points to a different situation on the “mineral soils” he farms in next-door Beaufort County. “I only applied one over-the-top application of Roundup in Beaufort County.”

In terms of fertility, Prince and his four employees broadcast the N, P and K when they're bedding the land. The fertilizer formulation is generally 90-50-75.

In the past he has used a fertilizer additive along with an in-furrow fungicide treatment, but reports this season that he'll scrap the fertilizer additive. He'll instead apply a gallon of 11-37-0 in-furrow at planting. He'll also switch to a less expensive treatment for Rhizoctonia and save $9 to $10 per acre. In early August last season, he applied urea on the foliage.

When it comes to varieties, Prince believes transgenic varieties give him the ability to plant and manage a large acreage.

Last year, he planted 100 percent of his cotton crop in Roundup Ready or stacked-gene varieties. The varieties include Paymaster 1218, Sure-Grow 501 stacked, Sure-Grow 125 stacked, Sure-Grow 125 Roundup Ready, Sure-Grow 521 Roundup Ready, Delta & Pineland 451 and Stoneville 4892.

Last year, Prince planted half of his crop in Paymaster 1218. “I had 1,100 acres of the 1218 that averaged 1,348 pounds per acre. That was good from a yield standpoint, but the sad part was that 68 percent of the crop was short staple. 1218 was beating the other varieties as much as 200 to 300 pounds.”

He plants four seed per foot of row on 30-inch rows. Plant populations are 65,000 seeds per acre.

Last year, adequate rainfall helped and hindered the cotton crop. “The plants just tried to keep on growing and it was hard to get them out of that vegetative mode,” Prince says. “It just kept adding fruit to the top and getting taller. Too much rain hurt the crop, but I'll take that kind of yield every year.”

Prince ran into trouble with the frequent rains and his application of Pix last season. He believes it was a matter of timing, more than anything.

He applied Pix three times, beginning when the cotton was 12 to 14 inches tall. “That wasn't enough,” Prince says. “It was more of a matter of timing than the amount.”

Rains that came as frequently as three times a week from July through September gave Prince cause to delay Pix application.

“At the end of July, following a week of rainy weather, I should have gone in with a heavy shot of Pix,” he says. “I waited a week and that was a mistake. Some of the cotton got extremely tall, like four feet. That pushed the maturity back and it shed lower fruit. In early October, a frost caught the later-planted cotton before it had a chance to mature. We had a lot of short staple cotton.”

While cotton has been a good fit in the Blacklands, it was economics that convinced Prince to plant cotton in the first place.

“I had been farming grains since 1973 and was really basically hanging on and paying for the equipment,” Prince says. “By the time the equipment was paid for, it was needing to be replaced — in short, I wasn't getting much return on my investment.”

In 1991, he took the advice of Southern States salesman Bill Loveless and tried cotton on 110 acres.

“I had three questions when I first started farming cotton,” Prince recalls. “Number One: What kind of yields can you expect with cotton?

“Number Two: Will these black soils affect the color of the cotton and the color grade?

“And, Number Three: Will we be able to control the growth of the cotton?”

Prince got positive answers to all of his questions. The first year he grew cotton he averaged two bales to the acre after a bad start. “That showed me the potential with cotton,” Prince says. “And every year since then, I've increased acres.” He says he'd like to increase acreage to 3,000 to 3,200 acres in order to maximize current equipment and labor.

“Transgenic cotton, which came on the market in a limited amount in 1995, gave us a tool to work with to grow cotton around here,” Prince says.

e-mail: [email protected]

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