Nathan Reed: Surviving with 'un-conventional' cotton in 2016: Part I

If cotton was selling for 80 cents per pound, Nathan Reed might be planting most, if not all, of his acres to varieties containing the latest herbicide and insecticide traits.

But cotton is bringing quite a few cents less than that and may not do much better for most of 2016, so Reed, who farms 6,000 acres of cotton, corn, soybeans and milo near Marianna, Ark., is trying a different approach.

For the last two years, he’s planted slightly more than half his land to a “conventional” variety, UA 222, which contains no genetically-modified traits. The cost difference is leading him to grow more conventional cotton in 2016.

“You’re essentially starting out $100 an acre ahead with the conventional system,” says Reed. “Obviously we’re going to make that up somewhat, but the thing I really like about it is this: By the time I burn down, spray all my residuals and plant GMO varieties, I have around $200 an acre just in straight input costs before the seed ever comes up.

“And that’s a lot of risk to have with cotton prices where they are. With a conventional variety I have from $70 to $80 an acre in the seed so you’re talking about a third of the expense out there.”

Reed, a speaker at the National Conservation Systems Cotton and Rice Conference in Memphis, Tenn., said he still plants a number of the varieties that have long strings of numbers and letters behind them. But he expects to plant more without those in 2016.

Costs not front-loaded

“You do catch up (on some of those herbicide and insecticide expenses), but it’s not so front-loaded,” he notes. “I don’t farm like this, but, if you have a catastrophe or you see you’re going to have a hiccup somewhere, you can start cutting expenses and still come out.”

Reed provided a comparison of his costs for growing “conventional” and traited cotton. (“Conventional is in quotes because most varieties planted today have GMO traits.)

He spends about $100 more per acre for the GMO varieties when you factor in seed count, technology fees and seed treatments (about $150 per bag for conventional seed vs. $620 for seed containing the traits.

“I’m not knocking them because you get a lot of other stuff with these varieties, and I know the technology fees differ,” says Reed, “but a rough comparison in our area would put the GLB2 variety at $135.27 an acre and the Phytogen Widestrike at $129.38. I still plant plenty of those, and this is a pure cost comparison.”

As far as herbicide costs, Reed has also been trying another “unconventional” approach. “The best herbicide I’ve found money can buy is a cereal rye cover crop,” he says. “I’ve been expanding that more and more, and I’m trying to get 100 percent of my acres on it.”

Conservation tillage planting

He’s using a conservation tillage approach to planting cereal rye, which costs him $14 an acre for the seed. “I cut my stalks behind the picker, run a hipper, seed this out and run a do-all – all in one day,” he notes. “Then it’s ready to plant next spring.

“I don’t figure the $14 an acre for a bushel of cereal rye seed into my conventional acre comparison because I’m trying to get cereal rye on 100 percent of my acres. It provides phenomenal weed control.”

To justify the cereal rye expense, Reed no longer rip his fields. “By doing soil probe tests we’re actually seeing that cereal rye does about 80 percent of what a para-till does.”

Reed believes the savings on diesel fuel and maintenance for deep plowing more than pay for the cereal rye along with an increase in water infiltration rates

Because of Palmer amaranth, Reed follows what amounts to a conventional weed program on his GMO cotton varieties, applying Roundup, dicamba and Firstshot as a burndown herbicide prior to planting. Where he planted cereal rye, he omits the Roundup from his burndown.

He sprays Reflex two weeks before planting, and, if cereal rye is growing in the field, he applies Roundup with the Reflex. “I’m still using all the residuals with the cereal rye just as insurance, and Reflex is $5 an acre,” notes Reed.

Overlaying residuals for pigweed

The remainder of his herbicide program for GMO varieties consists of Direx and Gramoxone sprayed behind the planter, followed two weeks later by Roundup, Liberty (on the GlyTol LibertyLink cotton) and a generic Dual. About two weeks after that, he applies Roundup, Liberty and Warrant. His layby: MSMA and Caparol..

“I figure that with Direx and Gramoxone you’re killing everything that’s out there and starting clean,” he said. “In a Roundup system, obviously, you leave off the Liberty and do everything else. Sometimes I won’t come back with a second shot of Liberty.”

For the conventional variety, the approach is basically the same: Burndown with Roundup, dicamba and Firstshot, and, if the field has a cereal rye cover, leave off the Roundup. He applies Reflex two weeks before planting, adding Roundup if the field has a cereal rye cover.

Direx and Gramoxone are applied behind the planter. Dual comes after emergence followed about two weeks later by Staple and Select and then two weeks after that by Warrant. The layby herbicide consists of MSMA and Caparol.

“If we have small grass present after the cotton emerges, I may add the Select to the Dual,” Reed notes. “These three herbicides – Staple, Select and Warrant – can be mixed in different ways depending on what’s present.”

The 16 ounces of Select and 2.5 ounces of Staple in the conventional cotton cost about $25 an acre, he says. “With two applications of Roundup and two applications of Liberty that’s around $55.50 an acre, which gives you savings of about $20.50 an acre on chemicals in the conventional cotton.

Low pigweed pressure

“I know it’s not as good as Liberty, but even on the fields without a cereal rye cover crop, I did not have a severe problem with pigweed, and we have plenty of pigweed to go around in our area.”

The weed control system for conventional cotton varieties is about $16 per acre more expensive than for the Roundup Ready system with two applications of Roundup, says Reed. “But I’ve found my fields are cleaner in a conventional cotton system. In our area, Roundup really doesn’t work on morningglories, we have resistant ryegrass and Roundup has never worked well on coffeebean if you’re growing it on a little heavier ground. The Staple and Select killed it.”

Insect control is about $32 per acre more expensive in the conventional varieties because of the need to spray more insecticides, typically Beseige in Reed’s case, to control worms in the non-Bt cotton.

“I’ve never done more than two applications and sometimes can get by with one, and the full rate of Prevathon and full rate of Karate are providing some plant bug control,” he says. “On the other hand, UA 222 is very tolerant of plant bugs and many times I’ve made one or two less applications for plant bugs.”

For more information on Reed’s and other presentations at the National Conservation Systems Cotton and Rice Conference, visit http://www.nctd.net/.

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