Cotton growers face major production obstacles

The current low price for cotton, over-supply of U.S. cotton, and possible losses in the upcoming farm bill are all reasons for concern for Southeastern cotton producers. On the other side of that coin are a number of production challenges that may affect the long-term viability of cotton production more than economic factors.

High on that list is weed resistance. Though glyphosate resistant pigweed gets most of the ink, the whole arena of resistance is a major problem for cotton farmers, says Roy Cantrell, vice-president for agricultural research at Cotton Incorporated.

“Glyphosate resistant pigweed is a one of three major production challenges I feel cotton farmers will face in 2007 and beyond. It is a threat to reduced-tillage systems. It is a threat to quality, when you think about cleanliness and harvesting. This particular problem cuts across so many production practices,” Cantrell says.

Cotton farmers Beltwide have been bombarded with information about herbicide resistance, and more specifically about glyphosate resistant pigweed, but Cantrell contends the impact has not been felt by many growers. Cotton growers are faced with so many production questions, and resistance, like so many others, is not a problem until it affects them directly.

The first glyphosate resistant pigweed were only documented in 2005, and the spread of the problem has gone relatively slowly, so damage from resistant pigweed has affected relatively few growers.

Cantrell says adopting a management system to prevent resistance is difficult. Refuge regulations for Bt cotton to prevent insect resistance are required, but herbicide resistance is not required. Even though well respected scientists are providing excellent educational information on preventing or delaying weed resistance to herbicides, it is still difficult for growers to spend money doing something they are not required to do, Cantrell explains.

A second challenge, Cantrell contends, is management of sucking bugs, especially stinkbugs. Until the widespread use of GMO insecticides, sucking bugs were routinely controlled by insecticides used to control the bollworm/budworm complex. Now, in some areas of the South, these insects are a serious threat to cotton quality.

Controlling sucking bugs is costly from several perspectives, Cantrell says. Obviously, if you don’t control these insects they will cause serious damage to a cotton crop. If you scout and spray and maintain good control that is costly. However, a big cost is that too many farmers spray when they don’t have to spray. Growers know how damaging these bugs can be, they don’t want them in their fields, so they spray to prevent buildups — many times when they don’t need to spray, he says.

“We are getting new, and very accurate, research to help growers know if and when to spray, timing of sprays, and which materials work best under different conditions. Over a period of a few years, this information will give growers what they need to make good, economic decisions on insect management. In the interim, sucking bugs are a major production problem that growers will have to cope with,” Cantrell contends.

Length uniformity and other quality factors so critical to making U.S. cotton more marketable in foreign markets can be directly affected by sucking bugs. So, controlling these pests has a direct impact on both yield and quality, Cantrell adds.

A third challenge, he says, is sustaining fiber quality and staying ahead of the curve when it comes to foreign markets. “Our growers have to grow better cotton, higher quality cotton than growers in other parts of the world, just to keep our product viable in these world markets five to 10 years in the future,” Cantrell says.

“I’m confident we are developing varieties that are capable of producing staple lengths which will average 36-37. Some of these varieties will produce yields comparable to the best yielding varieties we currently grow. I don’t believe for a minute that we have to exchange quality for yields — we can have both,” Cantrell stresses.

Competing with cotton-producing countries like China and India is difficult because such a high percentage of hybrid cotton is grown in those countries. When good varieties occur, they can make crosses, harvest the seed, and have high yielding cotton that has desired quality characteristics. Cantrell points out that these countries have the labor force to produce hybrid cotton. He notes that cotton pollen is very heavy and must be transported by insects or some other means other than by air, as is the case with corn, wheat and most crops. In China and India cotton pollination is done by humans, a labor luxury we don’t have in the U.S.

“I don’t think we have even scratched the surface on quality and yield capabilities of cotton varieties. We have cotton breeders who can develop most any quality we want — the big question is identifying what we want. Regardless of micronaire and staple length, export markets will break on short fiber content, length uniformity and maturity of the fiber, and those things are not easy to measure. If it’s good you know it, if it isn’t good, you don’t know why,” Cantrell says. Those kind of unknowns make it difficult for a cotton breeder, he adds.

The best variety is out there, it’s just a matter of finding it. The pipeline is full of varieties, so it is an ongoing process. And though, it takes 5-7 years from start to getting a variety on the market, this is a little misleading because of the amount of work that is being done every day on cotton varieties, Cantrell says.

With more than 70 percent of all cotton that is exported coming from the U.S., growers, buyers, and everyone involved in cotton must work together to stay ahead of the demands of foreign buyers, he concludes.

EDITOR’S NOTE — Roy Cantrell recently announced his resignation from Cotton Incorporated to accept a position with Monsanto.

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