During these tough times of high costs and low prices, can cotton producers pull one more rabbit out of the hat? Several Mid-South producers think they can by going to a skip-row configuration to reduce inputs.
Alamo, Tenn., cotton producer Jimmy Hargett has turned the economics of skip-row cotton over and over in his head, looking for smoke and mirrors, playing the devil's advocate and wondering why more farmers aren't trying it.
We've been fighting for the last three to four years to save $10 an acre, Hargett said. I think skip-row can save $100 or better. But people think it's too good to be true. It's like pie in the sky.
Economic studies indicate that when prices drop, skip-row economics improve. In 1999, Hargett compared 450 acres of 2-1 narrow-skip to his 38-inch solid cotton. A higher net return for skip-row prompted Hargett to expand 2-1 to 1,100 acres in 2000. Mississippi State University economist Dave Parvin assisted the producer in analyzing economic data from the experiment.
According to Parvin, seven inputs (including scouting, boll weevil control tubes, hauling costs, ginning fertilizer, Treflan and custom lime application) did not change between the two systems from 1999 to 2000. But down-the-row inputs were always less in skip-row because it has fewer feet of rows per acre.
How much you can expect to reduce your inputs in skip-row depends on row spacing. For example, a grower on 30-inch solid cotton who goes to a skip-row configuration would spend one-third less on down-the-row inputs. Hargett went from 38-inch cotton to 2-1 narrow skip, which provided a 16 percent reduction in down-the-row inputs.
Skip-row cotton should make 90 to 94 percent of what solid cotton makes per acre, according to Parvin. Soil type and row spacing can also play a part. Surprisingly, Hargett's skip-row cotton outyielded his solid cotton by 5 percent in 1999 and 10 to 15 percent in 2000. Hargett will convert over 4,000 acres to skip-row in 2001.
According to an MSU selected-inputs study comparing solid 40-inch cotton and 2-1, full-skip cotton, in conventional-tillage and reduced-till situations, the 2-1 skip yielded about 90 percent of solid cotton yields, 744 pounds to 825 pounds.
The study also compared the efficiency of 6-row versus 8-row configurations. The combination of reduced-till and 8-row, 2-1 full-skip provided the best return above direct plus fixed costs at $31.26. That compared to a loss of $27.10 for 8-row, solid cotton. The study was conducted by Parvin and Dudley Stephens, research assistant at MSU.
A big benefit from skip-row is the savings in labor, diesel fuel and repair and maintenance. One reason skip-row configured planters and harvesters cover an acre of ground in fewer passes than their solid-configured counterparts.
For example, a 4-row, solid cotton picker covers a little over 12 feet with each pass through the field, compared to a little over 19 feet for a skip-row picker. Hargett is even more efficient than that. Each of his 6-row, skip-row Case pickers covers over 22 feet with each pass. It will pick twice as fast as a 4-row, Hargett said. Wider is better.
If you're not changing too much, the skip-row conversion is inexpensive. For example, if you're not changing row spacing, just don't put seed in the hopper over the skip. To reconfigure your picker, Hargett suggests keeping the inside picking units together under the picker with a skip on either side like this (X-XX-X).
That way, you're only straddling two rows. If you configure it the other way (XX-XX) you have to straddle three rows. Then you'd have to rework the running gears.
If you're a little hesitant about all those skips in your field, you can plant a skip-row, solid combination (XX-XXXX-XX) although you'd have to configure your picker to straddle three rows.
Other cotton growers are trying 2-1 skip, too. Hargett's son, Stoney, will convert 1,500 acres to 2-1 skip this year. When he figured up his 2-1 budget, the reduced costs, plus going to cash rent on about 300 acres, resulted in an increase in cash flow (not net income) from $100,000 to $284,000. That made all the difference in the world to the banker, he said. Last year, we were trying everything in the world to make it work.
The younger Hargett will also reduce his fertilizer costs significantly by not applying his fertilizer in the skips. He'll also turn off spray nozzles over the skips to reduce costs when applying chemicals.
Will McCarty, Extension cotton specialist at Mississippi State University, says Mississippi will see a small increase in skip-row cotton. I don't think we'll see a 30 percent increase in skip-row. We'll see a slight increase. I've also heard of some growers who are going with 60-inch solid cotton. For the insurance program, that counts as solid cotton, but it gives you as much cost reduction as 2-1 skip-row cotton.
Clarkedale, Ark., cotton producer Allen Helms is thinking about making a significant jump to skip-row, perhaps as much as 4,000 acres. I can take the inputs that I'm putting in a cotton crop, stretch them out and end up with more gross acres devoted to cotton and fewer gross acres devoted to soybeans. I'm just replacing soybeans with skips.
The only significant equipment modification will be made on Helms' harvester and that consists of moving picking heads and air ducts. We're going to stay on full 38 skips, so on our planter, we just won't put seed in those hoppers.
A downside is that Helms will have to pay eradication costs on the skip, a pretty big item. That's probably the biggest thing. But all the data I've seen says that we can make about 90 percent of what it would have made solid on gross acres. That's a pretty good bit of cotton to make on the skip, where your expenses are not nearly so great.
At current relative prices, skip-row cotton production is probably more profitable than solid cotton production on many Mid-South farms, Parvin added. On average for certain poorer soils, skip-row yields can exceed solid yields. But we also have producers who have put skip-row on their very best soils.
Parvin says that economics are forcing growers to not only consider skip-row, but reduced tillage and going wider. The way we did things five years ago won't make any money, he said. Costs are up and prices are down.