On a day when cotton prices struggled in the high 40 cents a pound range, Virginia grower Mike Griffin showed no signs of cotton being anything other than king on his farm near Suffolk, Va.
Griffin's success in growing cotton is exceeded only slightly by his exuberance and optimism for farming in general and cotton farming in particular.
He points with pride to what he calls his Wall of Fame. The wall currently consists of four cotton variety signs. Each of these Stoneville varieties (4892, 5599, 5242 and 4575) has performed above expected standards in a previous cotton growing season.
“To get your sign on that wall requires some doing,” he laughs. On a slightly more serious vent the Virginia grower provides some insights on cotton varieties — good and bad — and how those few made it to the wall in his farm headquarters.
“The first sign on the wall is Stoneville 4892, which performed over the years on a multitude of soil types and growing conditions. It was our bread and butter. Unless there was some totally unexpected occurrence, 4892 would make you a satisfactory cotton crop,” Griffin says.
Griffin's farm is located near Virginia Tech's Tidewater Research and Extension Center in Holland, Va, and he works closely with the researchers there and with various seed companies to do variety testing.
“When a variety works well in our variety tests, we try it on the farm. If it performs well on the farm in a large acre planting, over multiple sites, it has a chance to make it to the Wall of Fame,” he explains.
Griffin is a non-discriminatory cotton fanatic — on his farm they test seed that any cotton company wants to provide. In the past two years he has looked at cotton varieties at two on-farm sites from Phytogen, Stoneville, Deltapine, Fiber Max and Americot. Prior to that, they tested varieties at one site on the farm for six years.
“The technology changes so fast and doing these variety tests is a lot of fun for us, but it also provides some valuable information we feel helps us do a better job of growing cotton,” the Virginia grower adds.
“You can plant cotton in five different fields over an 8-10 mile radius, and you go look at these varieties and think — well it's fruiting up okay, its internode length is okay. At the end of the day it's really difficult to detect subtle differences in these varieties until you see them side by side.
The first test we did was in a 100 acre field near my home. Every day I would walk through the field and look at the different varieties throughout the whole growing season. That's when I knew the only way to see those subtle differences was to look at them over the whole season and side by side.
I learned a lot about cotton and how cotton varieties responded under different weather conditions, under different pesticides and different growth regulators.
Joel Faircloth, who was the Virginia Extension Cotton Specialist before leaving to taking a job working with Dow on Phytogen cotton varieties, started extending official variety testing conducted by Virginia Tech to larger plot (field size) tests with farmers. Griffin was one of the first selected to participate in the on-farm testing.
“The field we use for our on-farm cotton tests is about 20 acres. In the past couple of years we have had from 11-19 varieties, so each variety is grown on more than an acre. It gives us a good side-by-side comparison. The samples from the eight-row test usually end up being three-fourths of an acre,” Griffin explains.
Of the varieties tested, Griffin planted only five varieties in 2008 and plans to plant only four varieties on about 1,000 acres of cotton in 2009.
“In the global environment in which we grow cotton today, quality is a big, big issue. It's not just a matter of which variety produces the most cotton. In addition to looking at which variety takes best advantage of the inputs we use to grow the crop, we have to look at the quality factors that will make our cotton more desirable to foreign buyers,” Griffin stresses.
“Let's face the truth, more and more of our cotton is going to China,” he says. “Chinese mills like either real coarse, low grade cotton or real high grades of cotton used to make clothes and other high value products. Typically, U.S. growers have produced middle grades of cotton, which remains the choice of U.S. mills. The problem is U.S. textile mills are a vanishing breed and less than a fourth of U.S. grown cotton is used in U.S. textile mills.
“I didn't understand the importance of fiber length to Chinese textile mills until a couple of years ago. I went on a Cotton Incorporated tour to Parkdale Mills in North Carolina — one of the best tours on which I have attended. It became clear that no matter how much cotton you produce, if it's not what global textile mills want, it doesn't have much value,” he says.
“The new varieties we are seeing are being bred to fit into the demands of the world market. Producing the right kind of cotton in the future is likely to be more important than how much cotton you produce,” Griffin explains.
In 2008, Griffin planted almost entirely with the flex program. “With all the first generation varieties going away in 2009, we decided to go ahead and familiarize ourselves with Widestrike and Bt flex varieties. We had not grown flex varieties except for one small area,” he says.
The only exception to flex varieties in 2008 was Phtyogen 375. “We had such good luck with that particular variety in 2007, we couldn't leave it off. The yields were exceptional and the quality was good in some conditions that were not very good for growing cotton,” he says.
In 2008, the top yielding varieties included Phytogen 375, Stoneville 4427, and Stoneville 4554. “Phytogen varieties performed well, but that's only one year,” Griffin cautions. “To make the Wall of Fame a variety has got to prove itself over a number of years,” he laughs.
“We fertilize for a little better than a two bale crop, and that's what we shoot for when we plan what varieties we will plant. In the past couple of years the new varieties have performed so well. Five or six years ago it was a bonus to pick a thousand pound cotton crop. Now, if I pull into a field and we pick 800-900 pounds, I'm a little disappointed.”
With the high costs of inputs and the year-to-year uncertainties on price, it's almost essential to grow two-bale cotton, the Virginia grower contends. Seed companies have done a good job of giving us the tools to continually increase yield without sacrificing quality, he adds.
“All the varieties we planted in 2008 (Phytogen 375, 370 and 315 Stoneville 4427, Stoneville 4554 and a small quantity of Stoneville 4498) and the four we will plant in 2009 give us the genetic capability to produce better than two bales of high quality cotton. Of these varieties, Phytogen 375 and Stoneville 4427 and 4554 were really impressive last year,” he notes.
Phytogen 375, for example, looked very, very bright. It was probably in the 31 range, which is really unusual and really good for Virginia cotton. This particular variety also graded really well,” Griffin concludes.
The Virginia grower remains upbeat and says he is looking forward to growing cotton in 2009. Commitment, optimism and a good sense of humor are critical in any business — cotton is no different, he adds.