How did Arkansas cotton fare in 2014 and what might 2015 look like for the crop?
“To be honest, I was very surprised at how things turned out for our cotton last year,” says Bill Robertson, Arkansas cotton specialist. “We had an exceptional fall and those make up for a lot of shortcomings through the growing season. We’ve had two really good falls in a row.”
Fresh off a presentation at the Arkansas Crop Management Conference, Robertson says the state had the fifth largest cotton crop in the nation in terms of bales produced. “Our yield on a per acre basis was great, fourth in the nation. Actually, the whole Mid-South did well -- we were all within about a 20-pound range. The prediction is we picked about 820,000 bales and that’s about 100,000 more than in 2013.”
The state has actually set records the last two years. When the dust settled, in 2013 producers picked an average per acre yield of 1,133 pounds. In 2014, that average leapt 60 pounds to 1,193.
“I’m still unsure how they’re factoring in the cotton lost to hail around Black Oak late in the season. And we had a lot of producers that didn’t get the hail but still had a couple hundred pounds of lint on the ground due to the high winds and rain. If you didn’t have all the riders in your insurance policy that really hurt.
“Even with that, though, we can’t be upset with a record crop. The thing is the record doesn’t seem to be pushing more farmers to look at cotton. I don’t know if we’ll break 300,000 acres in 2015. I’ve been visiting with some people who have me worrying about a drop. Going into this year, I thought we’d have between 280,000 and 300,000 but some folks don’t think we’ll hit 280,000. I’m anxious to see what the National Cotton Council estimate is at their annual meeting.”
The major hindrance for the crop: the price of growing cotton is simply too high. “Look at the December 2015 price: 62 cents. Of course, there are rebates and different programs at the gins. But it’s hard to see producers going with cotton without a price of around 80 cents. If we could get 80 cents to the producer, that would move them to plant more cotton.
“Scott Stiles, (Arkansas Extension/Arkansas State University agriculture economist), has looked at the current cost of production for different crops. He considered corn with a 200-bushel yield, soybeans at 60 bushels and cotton at 1,200 pounds. The breakeven price on beans turned out to be around $10 and corn was $4.”
That reinforces what Robertson has been hearing from many producers regarding the wisdom of keeping a lot of corn in their rotation. “A lot of farmers keep corn in their rotation religiously. But they’re now telling me they’re reconsidering because the cost of production is out of whack. Beans are barely breakeven but they’re the most attractive option. Everything is pointing to major soybean acreage this year.”
Some landlords remain insistent that cotton be grown on their land. “I know some are working with their producers on rent agreements to try and make it easier. But I don’t know how widespread or how heavy the concessions are.”
Sustainability remains a buzzword in the industry and Robertson says that is unlikely to change. “The brands and retailers are driving the movement -- it’s hot, right now. They’ve actually got sustainability goals within their companies and from the people they source products from. Their expectations are a reduction in things like greenhouse gas emissions and they’re going to meet those goals. That’s going to impact the way we do business and could impact the markets for our products. This is a real thing not some far-out idea that isn’t going to happen.
“U.S. cotton must work at that if we want to be along for the ride. The NCC, Cotton Incorporated, and Cotton Council International have teamed up with Australia to form Cotton LEADS. The bottom line is there are different initiatives out there to promote and document continuous improvement toward greater levels of sustainability.”
Why the need for Cotton LEADS? Robertson says U.S. and Australian cotton producers have already adopted many of the criteria some of the other sustainability initiatives promote. “Many cotton-producing countries can’t meet the level of transparency already evident in the United States. So, in those countries, some of the sustainability initiatives that we don’t need are certainly understandable.
“Stepping back, though, some of the certification processes that are necessary elsewhere aren’t here. And that certification has to be paid for -- someone has to come out and make sure what’s being claimed is actually happening.”
That’s why Cotton LEADS is so important for U.S. and Australian cotton. “We can’t have our cotton locked out of some markets. When someone wants to secure responsibly-produced cotton for, say, t-shirts, the LEADS program helps ensure U.S. and Australian cotton is on their shopping list. And more and more companies are signing up, accepting and backing the Cotton LEADS program approach.
“It’s very important that we continue to focus on this because the issue isn’t going away. Think about where agriculture is going: the cage-free eggs, the farm to table movement, the move to hormone- and antibiotic-free food products. This is all part of that. I saw a commercial while attending the Beltwide conference this year that was touting a ‘natural’ burger of grass-fed beef with no hormones, steroids or antibiotics.
“Ten years ago, people would have looked at you funny if you wanted cage-free eggs. Now, that’s just standard.”
And it’s happening in cotton. “I don’t know what the end result will ultimately look like but we need to be ready. Farmers need to be checking things out like the Fieldprint calculator. The Field to Market Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture (https://www.fieldtomarket.org/) has a website listing all their members. Just browse all those names and you’ll see the wave is coming. We’ve got to be ahead of this.”
To help convince producers to bolster sustainability efforts, Robertson points to several ‘Discovery’ farms in Arkansas. “We’re keeping close attention to things like water use -- how much water is going on the field, metered wells, rain gauges, how much water is coming off the field, runoff is collected and analyzed. All of that data goes into the Fieldprint calculator and at the end of the year we can work up a budget. That tells us total variable costs or out-of-pocket expenses and, ultimately, profitability.”
The researchers would like to be able to show “once we’re more efficient the producer will have cost savings. You know, ‘If you do this, your bottom line is going to be healthier.’ If that proves to be the case, it’ll be much easier for producers to adopt these practices. That way, everyone in the supply chain wins.”
Also on the horizon is new technology to help combat weeds. “Everyone is excited to get the new technologies -- especially as they apply to weed control. I understand Monsanto’s Bollgard II XtendFlex cotton has received approval. However, we’re not going to be able to spray dicamba over the top. The chemistry won’t be registered for that use for this season is what I’m being told.
“With Deltapine and Americot cotton we basically had Bollgard II and Roundup Flex. Now, although not approved for dicamba over the top, we can spray Liberty on Xtend cotton from these two companies. That’s a big deal and great tool to deal with pigweeds. It’ll be interesting to see how that cotton performs over a wider area.”