Southeast growers struggle with cotton yields

Cotton acreage in the Southeast is expected to take a dip again in 2009, leaving many growers with difficult decisions.

New cotton varieties will play a big role and will likely continue to come on the market every year. These new cotton varieties are sometimes referred to as ‘fast track’ because they come into the market after extensive research by seed companies, but only one year of on-farm testing by grower cooperators.

In Virginia, Lewis Everett says the Deltpine Class 2009 varieties he tested were the highest yielding on his farm. Everett grew two of the 2009 class in 2008 — DP0920 and DP0924. The two varieties were similar, he says, with 0924 being slightly later maturing and a better fit for his farming operation.

Both of the Deltapine varieties will be available to growers for the 2009 season and both topped 1,200 pounds per acre on Everett’s farm.

DP0920 and DP0924 fall into the early- to mid-maturity group and were very similar in growth pattern, yield and quality Everett says.

In addition, growers in North Carolina and South Carolina have reported consistent, yet not so dramatic yield increases.

A similar system of bringing varieties to market early has worked well for corn, leaving growers with many high yielding hybrid options. Some of the newer cotton varieties have different natural and genetically improved options that make them site and situation specific for growers.

Reduced acreage over the past few years has left many Southeastern growers with a number of crop rotation options. Cotton, peanuts and grain have been a staple for many growers in the Southeast since the rapid rise in cotton acreage beginning in the 1990s.

Peanut acreage is expected to drop dramatically (30-50 percent) in 2009, leaving a number of options for Southeastern cotton growers.

Cotton and peanuts have made good partners for a number of years for growers in the Southeast. Virginia cotton and peanut grower Tommy Rountree says the combination has been a big benefit in his farming operation. He grew his first cotton crop in 1992. “I didn’t know what I was doing, that was the first good year for corn in a long time, and I swore I’d never grow cotton again. That lasted for three years,” he says.

Now cotton is a staple on his farm and has proven to be a good rotation with peanuts. “It’s the best rotation in terms of cleaning up nematodes and breaking disease cycles — the rotation has been one way of reducing risk on our small farming operation,” Rountree adds.

With peanut prices set at about 45 cents above loan value for runners and 90 cents above loan value for Virginia-types growers, are simply going to have to look at other rotation options for cotton. At least some of those acres in the Southeast will likely go into grain sorghum production.

One of the restrictions on growing grain sorghum in other parts of the country has been water. It takes 6-8 inches of available water to get a sorghum plant to the point of grain production. Once met, additional moisture has a significant effect on yield — 350 to 425 pounds per acre for each one inch of water.

Adding grain sorghum to a cotton rotation has a significant positive effect on cotton yield. In tests in the Southwest, cotton behind grain sorghum has shown consistent 20-25 percent yield increase versus cotton after cotton.

In most areas of the Southeast the drought conditions of a few years back have been broken with adequate rainfall in the winter of 2008 and spring of 2009. Market availability and price for grain sorghum are the two primary restraints for Southeastern growers.

Another option for cotton growers is the inclusion of forage crops in their cotton rotation. Grain prices and poor hay production, because of drought, have forced down the number of beef cattle in the Southeast, causing many cattlemen/farmers to look at other cropping options to improve production of their hay crops.

Including such traditional Southeastern hay crops as bahiagrass and bermudagrass into a traditional cotton/peanut rotation can have long- and short-term benefits on cotton.

Perennial grasses improve soil quality by reducing soil erosion and nitrate leaching, increasing organic matter content, water infiltration rates, and the abundance and diversity of micro and macro flora and fauna.

Cotton grown after perennial grasses is deeper rooted, has more vigorous growth, can better withstand pest pressure and environmental stresses. The end result is higher yields for cotton and improved hay quality for livestock feed.

Over half the cotton grown in the U.S. is not irrigated. Of the percentage that is irrigated, much of this land only gets supplemental water. For most growers the high cost of irrigation versus low prices for cotton hasn’t been an economically sound management decision.

Looking for new and improved, not to mention lower cost irrigation systems, may provide the impetus needed for more Southeastern growers to consider irrigation. A recent study in Tennessee, conducted in cooperation with Cotton Incorporated, showed a 430 pound per acre lint advantage for cotton irrigated using drip irrigation versus dryland cotton.

Kater Hake, director of research for Cotton Incorporated says a good rule of thumb for growers is to get an additional 70 pounds of lint per acre per inch of surface irrigation water per acre.

To be economically advantageous the Cotton Incorporated researcher stresses growers must get maximum fiber production out of irrigation water, regardless of the source or delivery system.

Though cotton is far from a staple crop in Kansas, it is getting more and more attention from growers, because it has lower water requirements than traditional grain crops. Shannon Evans, an agronomist with Crop Quest, a crop consultant company with over a million acres under contract, says some of his growers are looking at cotton as a last option because of their water situation.

“I’ve got one situation in which we have five irrigation circles and low water levels. Cotton is not necessarily the best crop to put under these irrigation systems, but because of water restrictions, it’s the best option this particular farmer has because cotton requires less water than his other crops” Evans says.

Finding the answer to higher cotton yields without higher input costs may be the first big step in bringing cotton back in a big way in the Southeast. Of course, getting the price up to 70-80 cents a pound wouldn’t hurt either.

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TAGS: Cotton
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