Tishomingo County, Miss., isn't the cotton-growing capital of the world. Total acreage of the county doesn't even rate a designation on the Mississippi Agricultural Statistics Service's acreage estimate charts. However, cotton counts in a big way for northeast Mississippi farmer Joe Bostick. The white gold is the backbone of his 1,300-acre row crop operation headquartered near Belmont and Golden, Miss.
Bostick's father and grandfather were farmers. Joe's oldest son, Ryan, is working his way into a partnership with his father. His younger son, Nathan, helps in the summers.
The Bosticks don't expect to produce three-bale cotton on the uneven, sandy soils they farm, but they do plan for and expect to produce yields to the full capability of the land and of their management. If anyone doubts their ability to persevere, they have only to look at the history of Bostick's almost 30 years of farming.
After graduating from college in 1971, he taught agricultural education for a few years, but the lure back to the land was strong. He gave up teaching to farm with his father, Charles Bostick. Their partnership was cut short when the elder Bostick died in a vehicle accident in 1985.
Cotton had been grown on the family land for years, but facing the obstacles of erosion, excessive insect damage and ever-increasing input costs, the Bosticks turned away from cotton in 1978 and for 15 years grew only grain and hay and supplemented that income with a modest hog operation.
Match the years to his history and you should realize Bostick's precise management allowed him to hold on to his farm and expand acreage throughout the 1980s — a decade known as one of the most trying for grain farmers.
Bostick decided in the early 1990s to give cotton another try. He bought a two-row picker and planted cotton. He was only three seasons into the endeavor when the ravages of the 1995 season sent yields reeling while opening his mind to more change.
In northeast Mississippi, events are remembered as happening either before or after 1995. That was the year tobacco budworms attacked the area's cotton crop with a vengeance, forcing growers to spray, in some instances, more than a dozen times per field in an attempt to control budworms and bollworms. Growers suffered drastic yield losses and abandoned some fields.
Bostick managed to pick a half a bale per acre that year, and he considered himself lucky. However, the experience of 1995 left him convinced a new offering on the market then was the only way he was going to be able to stay in the cotton business. In 1996 he planted his entire cotton crop, with the exception of the required refuge acres, to NuCotn 33B, one of the first widely-available transgenic cotton varieties offering resistance to budworms.
“We thought that was the best cotton we'd ever grown,” says Bostick. “We picked over two bales per acre that year.”
His full-time employee, Dale “Monroe” Ray, says the cotton was hard to get out of the bolls, but the yields were good. “I was amazed,” says Ray.
“We were green. We didn't know much about it, and it was just Dale and I,” says Bostick. “We depended that year on what the seed dealers told us.”
Then Bostick met and interacted with Homer Wilson and hired him as his first and only consultant.
Bostick now farms about 1,000 acres of cotton in Tishomingo and Itawamba counties of Mississippi and Franklin County, Ala. Another 300 acres are in corn, soybeans and bermudagrass hay, which he markets to the equine industry.
In 1992, when Bostick decided to get back into cotton, he had a lot of sicklepod on land coming out of beans. He got that under control with Cotoran, MSMA and “a good bit of tillage.”
As rapidly as he had adopted the transgenic Bt cotton varieties, he also adopted the Roundup Ready traits.
“Stacked gene varieties work for us. We were in the boll weevil eradication program earlier than the rest of the state because we went in with Alabama. We don't have to spray for weevils or worms, and Roundup takes care of most of our weeds.”
Predominant weeds are morningglories and marestail. “However, if we get in with timely applications and the rates allowed, we control those, too,” says Bostick.
Bostick and Ray rely on plant growth regulators. “We go with 4 ounces at squaring — sometimes as low as 3 ounces. Ten days to two weeks later we apply about 6 ounces,” says Wilson. “After cotton comes up, we put out a third application of 8 to 12 ounces an acre. This year, we have applied a total of 32 ounces on some fields. In other years we may get by with 16 to 22 ounces.
“Not everyone does that. Most growers wait until it's ready, apply a larger amount, and still have to go back. We do it on a schedule and with smaller amounts per application,” says Wilson.
“My Pix use depends on the rain and timing,” says Bostick. “I know timing is the main element because I use Pix to set fruit, not necessarily to control plant growth.”
This year, Bostick tried some of the new Pentia PGR, described by Wilson and Bostick as the “premium” of PGRs.
“I liked it,” says Bostick. “I think it is more rain-fast, takes less per application, and lasts longer.”
Joe Camp, manager of the Agriliance distributorship in Baldwyn, Miss., works closely with Bostick, supplying many of his inputs. He describes Bostick as an excellent farmer and customer because he reads, studies, listens and tries new things to improve his operation. Camp says the use of Pentia is an example of the innovative nature of Bostick's management philosophy.
“The use of Pentia is rare in this area, but Joe thought it would fit well in is program. He doesn't do something a certain way because it's how we've always done it,” says Camp.
“I try to give my crop what it needs, when it needs it,” says Bostick. “I guess you could describe me as a high-input farmer. We don't cut corners if we think it will cut our yields.”
Another practice Wilson and Bostick are both sticklers for is a good seed treatment. “We are prone to have seedling disease, so we try to protect our crops,” says Wilson. “We have some cold soils, and it's sandy loam. We call a lot of it second bottomland. That's what is between the true bottomland and the hills. If we didn't treat our seed, we could have sore shin, pythium and black rot. We make our own seed treatment formula to protect seedlings. Of course, we protect them from thrips, too.”
“Joe is also a stickler for soil sampling and giving back to the soil what the plants and yields have taken away,” says Camp.
“We sample some fields every year,” says Bostick. “Others every other year, but we won't go more than three years without sampling a field. As we've gone to more no-till, we've seen organic matter go up considerably. But we still have to give this sandy loam soil a lot of nitrogen.” He side dresses nitrogen by knifing it in behind a coulter.
“Our soil tests always reveal potash deficiencies, and we try to put out all the soil needs to get it back up to recommendations, and we try to do it all as timely as possible.”
He plants on 38-inch rows and shoots for three to three-and-a-half stalks per foot of row.
With the steady adoption of the transgenic varieties, he is experiencing a shift in his insect spectrum. “We see more plant bugs and more stink bugs now,” he says, “because we aren't spraying to control boll weevils.”
While scouting Bostick's and other fields in the area, Wilson hasn't seen a weevil in four years. “We stayed with the program even when most of northeast Mississippi voted it out,” he says. “We are very timely with applications, especially those to control plant bugs.
“This was the first year we had to spray for stink bugs, and I imagine we'll continue to see those populations build. Stink bugs are not easy to scout for — we just aren't used to them. I recommend treatment to my growers if I find one every 5 feet. We use Bidrin and Orthene for stink bugs and Centric on plant bugs.
“We set an early fruit load, and without weevils and worms, we set more fruit,” says Wilson.
Bostick remembers farming with his father as a boy and a young man, and he marvels at the changes in row crop production, specifically the time saved and the technology that comes with seed.
No-till, herbicide-tolerant and insect-resistant traits, more accurate soil testing and better chemicals all make his job easier and provide more assurance of the best end results possible.
“I have good help. I have a good consultant. I have good seed dealers,” he says. “Farming is still hard work, but it's amazing how far we've come.”
Transgenic traits in cotton and soybeans, have allowed him to gradually move toward minimum till and even no-till practices on several fields.
“This is the seventh year that I haven't had a disk in some fields. Last year those fields made more than two bales to the acre. And every acre we have is dryland,” he says. Conservation tillage saves time, labor and money, and it prevents erosion on the sloping and hill land he farms. Bostick also uses terracing and filter strips in many fields.
Bostick now is working to improve the quality of his cotton. “Our quality discounts haven't been bad, but we are always looking for better quality cotton. We (the industry) can't afford to lose markets because of the quality of our cotton. We need those overseas markets.”
Bostick says his results this season are common to those of all Mid-South growers. His cotton is maturing later than normal, and on Sept. 10 he was still a week to 10 days from starting defoliation.
“We had a difficult year to grow cotton. We had a lot of rain when the plants were trying to come out of the ground and establish a stand. We also were a little later than we like to be planting this crop. We didn't plant until the week of May 4-11.”
A walk though several of Bostick's fields, however, revealed plants with good, if not excellent boll loads. Some plants leaned over from the weight of the bolls not yet opened.
His varieties are about 50 percent DP 555, 20 percent DPL 444, 20 percent DPL 449 and a small acreage of FiberMax 966, planted to evaluate fiber quality.
“It looks good now, but we won't know until we get the picker in the fields,” he says.
Eva Ann Dorris is an ag journalist from Pontotoc, Miss. She can be reached at 662-419-9176 or [email protected].