Cotton still No. 1 on Georgia farm

Small grain production is all the rage in the Southeast these days. Yet there are still those places — like Terrell County in southwest Georgia — where cotton still reigns on some farms.

“Cotton is strong in Terrell County with great yields and quality,” says Charles Lamb, county Extension director. “A lot more wheat will be double-cropped with soybeans this year, but I don't think there will be a big shift.”

Land in Terrell County, he says, is well suited to cotton, and some cotton acreage will be planted behind wheat. “Growers need to get in pretty quickly behind wheat, but cotton is more forgiving in dryland situations than soybeans. Soybean prices are high, but our farmers know they can come down quickly to $5 or $6 per bushel.”

“Our growers are accustomed to growing high-yielding cotton, and I think they'll stick with it,” says Lamb.

Some of those Terrell County growers who will be sticking with it are the Lee family — father Ronnie, sons Ron, Chandler, and Neil, as well as nephew, Justin Jones.

“We farm 4,000 to 5,000 acres, predominantly cotton, but also peanuts, corn, and wheat” says Ron, who operates the family's McCleskey Cotton Company, a ginning and warehousing operation. “This year breaks down into about 4,000 acres of cotton, 500 acres of peanuts and 500 acres of corn. We also have roughly 1,000 acres of wheat this year.”

“With having the gin, warehouses, cotton pickers and other infrastructure that goes along with cotton production we have to grow cotton. Corn prices are attractive, and corn certainly helps the rotation as well. But we're in the cotton business, so we have to go with cotton, predominately. Corn is a good crop, especially in today's market, but it also is a very expensive crop to grow — not that cotton isn't.”

“In the past, we haven't grown very much corn. But last year, we starting growing more of it, and this year's acreage will match what we grew in 2007,” adds brother Neil. “Last year, we had two farms where we couldn't get enough water on the cotton because we used it all on corn. Hopefully, we can do a better job of managing water if have another dry year. We learned lessons from last year.”

“We'll be growing mostly DP&L 555 this year,” says Ron. “But also DPL 161 & 141, both of which are Bollgard II Roundup Ready Flex varieties. Where we are planting behind wheat, we'll probably go with Phytogen 370, which is a short-season variety or possibly DPL 555 or 515 if we have time. It goes without saying that we'd be fine sticking with DP&L 555, but we don't have a choice but to adapt to these other varieties.

“DP&L 555 makes so much more cotton, beating the other varieties by 200 to 300 pounds in the same field. We'll plant it while we can, but we have to learn how to manage these other varieties because we want to stay in the cotton business,” he says.

Eighty percent of the Lee's farmland is irrigated with center pivots, he says. “We're trying to get all of that converted over to electric power to get away from using so much diesel. The more we do that, the better it'll be as far as energy costs.”

The Lee's have converted more than half of their irrigation systems from diesel to electric power. “In some places, you can't make the conversion logistically. Changing to electricity is a big cost up front, but with $4-per-gallon fuel, it shouldn't take long to pay for it,” says Ron.

Neil says they'll be using IrrigatorPro from the National Peanut Lab to schedule irrigation on corn, peanuts, and cotton this year. “There are times when you just have to put on the water, like when the cotton is fruiting, whether the schedule calls for it or not. We try to make optimum yields on our irrigated cotton, but to do that cotton needs up to 2 inches of water per week. In our larger fields, we can't get it all on in one week. All of our irrigation is supplemental,” he says.

During last year's drought, he says they invested up to $100 per acre on irrigated cotton on some farms.

The Lee's use a variety of tillage methods, says Neil. “We do a lot of strip-tillage, some no-till, and then we do some conventional. We mix it up. We were 100-percent strip-till, up until about two to three years ago. The main reason we went back to conventional is that the yellow herbicides and the pre-emergence herbicides weren't working as well with conservation-tillage. We had so much litter out there, the herbicides weren't getting through the soil.

”With strip-tillage, we planted with one pass, and we didn't use so much diesel. Now we're burning more diesel, and the price of fuel is much higher, but the pigweed was taking over. We had to be able to get our herbicide into the ground. When we went back to conventional, we had better pigweed control,” he says.

The Lee's started planting cotton on April 20 this year, and had planted about 1,000 acres by May 5. “We had 600 acres of wheat last year compared to 1,000 acres this year, and we weren't double-cropping cotton behind it last year. Right now, we're ahead of where I thought we'd be in terms of planting. We've got a good stand on our dryland acres that we haven't had in the past few years. Our cotton seems to do best when it's planted between May 10 and May 20,” says Neil.

Cotton insect control, he says, starts with putting out 5 pounds of Temik, and this application does a good job of controlling thrips.

“Sometimes, we come with an early shot of Bidrin. We spray for stink bugs, although we didn't spray as much last year. Most years, we spray for stink bugs two or three times and in July spray a pyrethroid, which also helps in stink bug control.

“On land with nematode problems, we'll come back with a sidedress of Temik. Other than nematodes, stink bugs are our worst insect pest. Controlling stink bugs helps to improve our quality and our yields,” says Neil.

Weed control begins with Reflex and Prowl pre-emergence, he says. This is followed by Dual and Roundup.

“If needed, we'll come back with Staple or another product. We've been using Valor at layby, and it has been doing a good job for us. Resistant Palmer amaranth pigweed is a terrible problem for us. Our weed costs have increased significantly. Last year, on one particular farm, we spent between $75 to $80 per acre to control pigweed.”

Ron says he hopes cotton prices eventually will improve, getting in line with the grain crops. “It's very frustrating right now. Buyers aren't interested at all right now after the market chaos of early March. It's frustrating as a ginner when the customer calls and wants to forward contract and you can't do it.”

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