Delta cotton farmers, once again, will be tasked with the difficult chore of growing more cotton but investing less money to do it.
“Growers will be forced to maximize their return on investment and hopefully spend less to make more,” says Darrin Dodds, Mississippi State University Extension and Research agronomist, in remarks at the recent Beltwide Cotton Conferences in San Antonio.
He says some Mississippi growers have suggested that they have difficulty making a profit with yields topping 1,200 pounds per acre.
“We are in a new era with yield,” Dodds adds. The 2017 Mississippi cotton yield topped 1,000 pounds per acre, and growers will expect similar performance in 2018. “For the last six years in a row, we’ve made more than 1,000 pounds per acre, across a lot of different soil types; and in three of those years we’ve made more than 1,200 pounds per acre. Farmers’ perspectives have shifted. The notion of 800 to 900 pounds per acre as a target was abandoned six years ago.”
The only blip in the last decade was a 2009 crop that suffered under harvest-time rain that hurt production.
Price, too, has improved, Dodds says, from 52 cents when he came to Mississippi State to over 70 cents.
“But production costs are up substantially. A round bale picker costs nearly $1 million. Land prices are high,” maybe not as high as $14,000 an acre in some Midwest areas, but a big investment nonetheless.
Technology fees and crop protection costs have also risen. “And some technology traits are not as effective as they used to be, but we are still paying for them and still having to spray the crop.”
Dodds says Delta cotton farmers will need to make adjustments to eke out a profit. “Some will have to make cuts,” he says. He adds that producers should not try to “win the yield game, but win the money game.” And that requires scrutiny of production practices, production costs and improving efficiency.
Variety selection, he emphasizes, is the No. 1 practice to produce an efficient cotton crop. “To maximize efficiency, select the best variety for both field irrigated and dryland production,” he says.
Selecting the right variety is not a matter of adding expense but of spending the time to evaluate variety trials, farm history and management capability. He says looking at yield results is a start. In variety tests, the difference between the highest irrigated yield and mid-level yield could mean as much as 164 pounds per acre. The difference between highest and lowest yield could mean nearly 300 pounds. In dryland production, a 138 pound difference exists between highest and mid-level yields, and 268 between highest and lowest.
He says predicting exactly how one variety will perform is, at best, inexact. “But take the time to select the proper variety; once it’s chosen, it’s done.”
Yield is important, Dodds says, but not the only factor a grower should consider. “Look at more than performance. One variety will not win all the trials. Stability is important from year to year across soil types, rainfall, planting date and management styles.”
Fertility is No. 2 on Dodds’ list of factors to watch to improve efficiency. “Nitrogen affects plant growth,” he said. Potassium and lime also play critical roles. Knowing what’s available, a theme Extension has preached for decades, is a crucial factor in developing a fertility program. Mississippi is typically a 120-pound of nitrogen per acre state, Dodds says, but adjustments may be in order. Some growers will apply 105 and some will add 140 pounds.
“With 80 to 100 pounds of nitrogen, we can often top out yields on light textured soils in Mississippi.” He says adding too much nitrogen creates problems. “If a grower is using excessive rates of plant growth regulators, he can likely cut back on nitrogen. It’s hard to justify the investment of high nitrogen rates,” he adds.
He says insect management also may be more difficult with higher nitrogen rates. “Plant bugs like big, tall, rank cotton. If we can shorten the cotton plant, we can potentially reduce plant bug problems and lower cotton production costs.”
He says some producers spray seven to 10 times a season for plant bugs. Reducing nitrogen rate lessens fertility costs, possibly saves money on insect sprays, plant growth regulator expense and makes defoliation easier.
Potassium is also important and may tend to run out late in the season. “Big crops take a lot of potassium out of the soil. Cutting back on nitrogen frees up funds to add potash, Dodds says. “If we save $12 on nitrogen, we free up money for 80 pounds of potash.”
Pest management is Dodds’ No. 3 efficiency factor. Thrips, plant bugs and worms are the targets. He says seed treatments worked well on for thrips for many years, but five or six years ago resistance began to show up. “Aeris is still working reasonably well.” He says over-treatment or applying acephate in furrow is a good option.
He says variety characteristics may be a factor in plant bug management. “With hairy-leaf varieties, we see lower plant bug populations.”
Planting date also affects pest management. Dodds says early planting, in years when that’s possible, may allow producers to miss a key plant bug movement. “They come out of corn and into cotton,” he explains. “If we plant early and allow corn to get a little further along, we can avoid corn senescence and some plant bug damage.”
He says diamond insecticide may also be more effective if applied just before bloom.
He reiterates that managing nitrogen levels will help manage insect pests.
Weed pests have been managed effectively, he says with new technology, Xtend and Enlist cotton. “About 80 percent of our acreage went into these technologies in 2017; we expect a similar percentage in 2018.” Dodds says farmers used to spend from $20 to $30 an acre for weed control and now that number may approach or exceed $100 per acre. Any effective strategy to bring those costs down will benefit the bottom line.
Target spot is a new threat. “We have seen target spot become more common over the past several years and no variety is immune.”
He says infected plants may drop second position bolls. “I prefer that to first position.” He adds that no one is certain what the answer for managing target spot. “We can’t spray our way out of it. Fungicides have been inconsistent in terms of control and subsequent yield increases.”
He says variety selection will not solve the problem. “But I recommend selecting the best variety for your farm.” Canopy management, keeping plants short and compact, and allowing air movement may be beneficial.
Dodds’ No.4 key to efficiency is spending wisely. “Look at input costs and make decisions,” he says. “Replant decisions can make a difference in production costs. “If a grower has 15,000 plants per acre and plants are evenly spaced, keep it,” he advises. “Plants will compensate. But if the field has a lot of skips, replant.”
He says some tests have shown decent yields with populations as low as 9,200 plants per acre. ‘I wouldn’t recommend that planting rate but we can make yield with lower plant populations.”
Efficient irrigation management, he says, can be both an economical advantage and an environmental one. “We need to be aware of slowing down our aquifer depletion rate.”
Foliar feeding and harvest aids may also offer opportunities to save money. “Look carefully at foliar feeding — cost versus how much it makes.” He says harvest aids, “are as cheap as they have ever been. We can do an effective job for less than $25 per acre.”
Dodd says with high input costs and marginal crop prices, cotton farmers have to be willing to make adjustments. “Big crops mean big costs, so don’t spend frivolously. Spend money when you know it will pay.”