Can you grow more cotton for less?

Ever try to make juice from a dried-out orange peel? Squeezing juice out of something that could be used to hammer a small nail into the wall likely won't yield your daily dose of vitamin C. Cotton growers faced with squeezing profits out of 35-cent cotton likely have at least as difficult a task looming before them.

Surviving 2002 will require slashing production budgets that in most cases have already been cut, squeezed, and then cut some more. In the quest to grow cheaper cotton, Mississippi economist Fred Cooke says, producers must focus on both cutting input costs and maintaining yields.

Cooke, an agricultural economist at Delta Research and Extension Center in Stoneville, Miss, says, “This is no time to spend money you don't need to spend.” With cheaper cotton, however, farmers must make high yields in order to reduce cost per pound.

The average cotton farmer, according to Cooke, has out-of-pocket costs of around $485 per acre. Even with yields of 800 pounds per acre, it's costing the average farmer 60 cents to produce 1 pound of cotton. Decreasing costs to $375 per acre, with an average yield of 700 pounds of cotton per acre, isn't the answer either because that costs 53 cents to produce 1 pound of cotton.

For those who still want to be in this business in 2003, the answer may lie in a one-two punch. That is, knocking production costs down to about $375 per acre, and increasing average yields to 850 pounds per acre.

“We can't win with cotton prices at current levels, even with high yields. We must reduce our costs without sacrificing yields. That will require looking at the whole production system for your farm, and making across-the-board cuts,” Cooke says.

Reducing tillage or eliminating it completely may be the first step to whittling down production budgets.

Cooke defines reduced tillage as running a Paratill and then preparing seedbeds in the fall, with a spring Do-all operation ahead of the planter. No-till will require a re-bedding operation every three to five years. “For cotton, you need a good bed to get the soil temperature right and proper drainage.”

Both systems reduce the requirement for tractors, equipment and labor, while cutting diesel and repair bills. They can also impact general farm overhead by reducing the level of farm liability insurance and workman's compensation needed.

“For these systems to really have an impact, you can't have full tillage on your soybeans and reduced tillage or no tillage on your cotton. You're still stuck with all of your tractors,” Cooke says. “To get all of the economic benefits of these systems you have to adopt the production system for your whole farm, not just for one crop on your farm. You have to look at what it means to have fewer tractors, not just run them less.”

“We're not exactly recommending these practices, but all show some promise on some farms,” he says.

Cotton growers feeling the pinch in 2002 may also want to consider decreasing their pesticide and fertilizer applications. Entomologist Gordon Andrews at the Delta Research and Extension Center in Stoneville, Miss., suggests growers look closely at every input application and analyze the yield loss or gain associated with that expense.

That may require making do with cotton fields that are a little weedy.

“Cotton fields don't have to be absolutely clean,” Cooke says. “Occasional clumps of johnsongrass or lower level grasses late in the season aren't going to reduce your cotton yield. In a normal year, you'd want to kill these grasses to prevent seed development, but this isn't a normal year, and you may not be here next year. The most important thing we've got to do now is think about surviving.”

When deciding when to stop making insecticide applications in 2002, Cooke says growers should follow the Node Above Wide Flower plus 350 heat units rule. “Cotton growers need to worship that rule this year. Even with government payments, that top crop isn't going to be worth the cost of an insect control operation.”

Cooke adds, “Farmers probably have some residual nitrogen in their cotton fields, and they probably don't need as much this year as they've been using to make the same yield. I don't mean they should dramatically cut back their fertilizer applications, but reducing their nitrogen rates is another small way to cut production costs.”

Cost-conscious cotton growers may also want to delay their defoliation treatment to avoid the need for a second defoliation treatment. “It depends on weather, but certainly if I had cotton ready to defoliate Sept. 15 or Sept. 20 I'd wait a week. I wouldn't wait, however, if the crop wasn't ready to defoliate until the first week of October,” he says.

Other potentially economic production systems researchers are investigating include corn-cotton rotations and alternative insect control application methods.

Economist Steve Martin at the Delta Research and Extension Center recently finished a cotton-corn rotation study. The results, he says, are extremely promising.

“After one year of corn, the rotation boosted cotton yields 15 percent over continuous cotton yields. Based on our budgets, the rotation always amounted to increased returns over continuous cotton,” he says.

An added benefit of the system, Martin says, is that a cotton-corn production system seems to be extremely well-suited to no-till. “The cotton yields better, and this system can spread out your field operations, further decreasing labor and tractor requirements.”

Perhaps one of the most promising systems Cooke and his fellow researchers are evaluating is the full-season application of insect control products on a 20-inch band with ground applicators.

The joint on-farm project with USDA is in its third year. Andrews says early results show that applying insecticides on a 20-inch band can reduce insecticide costs by as much as 50 percent.

The first year of the study, the system provided the same yield as the control farm and reduced insect control costs by 50 percent. The second year, in the face of very heavy tarnished plant bug pressure, three farms realized a 50 percent cost-savings, and two farms made slightly more cotton with the conventional system.

“Slightly higher yields with broadcast insecticide applications resulted in a more favorable response on these two farms in 2000, but we think that may have had something to do with the weather and the plant bug pressure,” Andrews says.

Growers need to not only think about growing their crops cheaper, they need to consider putting their marginal cotton land in cheaper crops, Cooke says. “I'm not advocating that growers quit growing cotton. I'm advocating that you grow cotton only on your best cotton ground.”

e-mail: [email protected].

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