“Farming by the seed” – it’s a concept cotton producers should seriously consider as costs continue to soar.
“The reason we became interested in this primarily is because cotton seed no longer is $50 to $100 per bag, it’s gone up to $500 to $600 per bag,” says William Birdsong, Auburn University Extension agronomist. “Increasing seed costs have prompted a lot of producers to try and reduce their seeding rate and stretch it out to reduce the cost per acre. The big question is, do you make money or do you lose money by doing that?”
Research conducted during the past several years at the Wiregrass Research and Extension Center in southeast Alabama has focused on the impact – on yield and cost – of various cotton seeding rates, says Birdsong.
“We’ve got new weed control technologies coming out, and while they’re not saying how much it’s going to cost, my personal opinion is that the seed is going to cost more,” he says. “We no longer have the luxury of stringing out four seed to the foot of row and being insured of making pretty good yields – those days are gone for good.”
Different maturities were selected in choosing cotton varieties for the study, says Birdsong, and they included Deltapine 1252 and 1050, Phytogen 375 and 499, FiberMax 1944, and Stoneville 4946. They were planted at seeding rates of 1.7, 2.49, 3, 3.5 and 4.5 seed per foot of row. Most were irrigated studies, but in 2012, researchers compared dryland versus irrigated.
“Looking at irrigated cotton from 2012, we saw the highest yield from Deltapine 1252 at three seed per foot, with 1,423 pounds per acre. On dryland, we used the same concept as with corn, where we spread out the seed to get a bigger ear, hoping for better water utilization. But we saw that the thicker the stand, the higher the yield in respect to Deltapine 1252. Phytogen 499 peaked out at 1,492 pounds per acre at 2.49 seed per foot on irrigated.
“The take-home message here is that just because it’s dryland, it doesn’t necessarily mean we need to stretch it out, because we actually gained some yield when the stand was thicker.”
While one year’s worth of data provides a good snapshot, an even better picture comes into view when you consider the full four years of the study, says Birdsong.
The results showed that in most years and certainly over the span of the test, seeding rates did affect yield and revenue per acre, he says.
The seeding rates of 2.49 to 3.5 seed per foot were acceptable, with the rate of 3 seed per foot giving the highest return for the investment, says Birdsong.
“In 2012, the dryland trial with Phytogen 499 did not show the differences that we have seed with other varieties. However, the seeding rate of 3.5 seed per foot was the highest-yielding treatment.”
The results from all treatments of irrigated cotton from 2010 to 2013 showed that a seeding rate of three seed per foot was the best from a yield and return-on-investment standpoint, regardless of the variety planted, he says.
More money in your pocket?
The primary concern among growers, says Birdsong, is whether or not more cotton yield necessarily means more money in your pocket.
“Cost is the reason growers are squeezing down on those seeding rates. If you’re going at 1.7 seed per foot of row, that’s about one seed every 7 inches, more or less. As part of this research, we looked at the cost-per-acre of seed technology and broke it down to a per-seed cost.”
Deltapine is offered in a 250,000-seed per bag, Phytogen comes in 230,000 seed per bag, and Stoneville and FiberMax come in 220,000-seed bags, he says.
“If you break that down to a cost-per-seed basis, and apply 1.7 seed per acre to that, we get $58.82 per acre. At 2.49 seed per foot, it’s $86.15, at three seed, it’s $103.80, three and a half seed is $121, and at four seed per foot, it’s $155.70 per acre.”
The question remains, says Birdsong, are growers getting a return?
“So we took the average yields at 60-cents per pound revenue, and then subtracted out the cost of the seed and technology, giving us a net return before fixed and variable costs. So at 1.7 seed per foot, you’re looking at $532.18 per acre, at 2.49, we’ve got $556.45, three seed is $562.20, three and a half is $534.10, and four and a half seed per foot is $453.30.”
To be able to stay in business in farming, Birdsong says it’s the little things that count the most.
“You tweak the small things in order to derive a profit. Just doing something simple like changing from a very low seeding rate to a slightly higher one can give you an extra $30 per acre in profit – that’s over the cost of $103.80 per acre. If you grow 1,000 acres, this is how you can pick up $30,000.”
A producer might be thinking that while all of this sounds good, it might not work on his farm, says Birdsong.
“We’ve done four years worth of data here on the research station, and it continues to bale out in the same way. I have a lot of confidence in this data. We even have dryland data that shows we can pick up some revenue. At 60 cents per pound, that’s $30 per acre in your pocket. We’d like for cotton to be at 90 cents per pound, and if it was, you’d be up by $70 per acre by bumping up from that lowest seeding rate, over seed and technology costs.”
The seeding rate study is just one part of a broader “farming by the seed” concept, says Birdsong.
“We’ll spend money on our research so you won’t have to waste money on your farm. We’re also looking at more precision planting, like the Eset meter. From what I understand – and we’ll all be learning together – this technology will help us place seed more accurately. We’ll be looking at whatever we can do to make seed placement more accurate. If you’re not using any seed firmers, you probably should be looking at them. It helps to keep seed in the bottom of the seed furrow. We also have WaveVision seed tubes, where you can actually count the number of seed. You’ll obviously have to look at a different setup on your planter.”
Farming by the seed is the entire process, says Birdsong, from the bag of seed to an optimal seed-to-soil contact that give you a uniform stand.