Underwear Test
Tyson Raper, University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture, reluctantly holds a pair of underwear, unearthed from a field planted to a cover crop. Bill Robertson, University of Arkansas, used two pairs of cotton briefs to show how well healthy soil breaks down organic matter.

How does cotton underwear fare when buried under a cover crop?

Mid-South cotton specialists discuss varieties, acreage, defoliation and cover crops at Cotton Focus seminar in Jackson, Tenn.

Cotton specialists from Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee took a quick look back at 2017, made some recommendations for 2018, and mulled over opportunities and obstacles Mid-South farmers could expect as they prepared to plant another crop during a panel discussion at the Cotton Focus seminar in Jackson, Tenn.

And Bill Robertson, University of Arkansas, showed two pair of cotton underwear, one recovered from soil beneath a cover crop, the other dug out of a conventionally-tilled field.

First, a brief discussion of the briefs.

Robertson pulled out two pair of raggedy drawers during a wide-ranging panel discussion with Tyson Raper, University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture; Darrin Dodds, Mississippi State University; and Tyler Sandlin, Auburn University, to illustrate the advantages of a reduced tillage program and a cover crop.

The tighty whities uncovered from the conventionally-tilled field were still recognizable as underwear, though somewhat the worse for wear. The pair dug out of the cover crop resembled an old-school athletic supporter, little left save the elastic waistband and the leg seams.

The point: cover crops break down organic matter quickly, providing sustenance for microbes, which add significant benefits to the soil.

Robertson said cover crops improve soil health, sustainability and profitability.

“Why should we grow cover crops? We want something out there (on the field) as many months as possible to feed the bugs in the soil. Those bugs may be single cell organisms or more complex creatures. If we see worms in the soil, we know the soil microbes are doing well.”

He says those bugs are invisible, “but important. They help break down residue and add organic matter to the soil.” The underwear proves the point.

Increasing organic matter, he adds, improves water capture. “Cover crops add a lot to the soil.”

Planting a cover following cotton harvest, he says, could be new to a lot of farmers. “But we may have to do something different to stay in business.” Healthier soil improves yield potential, he adds.

The underwear test, he says, shows the power of a cover crop to break down organic matter. That cover, the crop not the underwear, is an important part of a sustainable production system, too, an increasingly important factor with consumers showing more interest in where products come from and how they are grown. “We are seeing broad support for sustainability, including from retailers like Walmart and Wrangler,” Robertson said.

Acreage Increases

The four specialists discussed why cotton has seen an acreage resurgence in recent years, with significant increases in 2017 and expectations that the trend will continue this year.

Cotton prices have improved in recent months, offering at least a possibility of making a profit, and grain prices, although showing signs of recovery, remain low.

Adding to the interest: cotton producers have made excellent crops in recent years.

Dodds says Mississippi cotton farmers planted 630,000 acres in 2017, a 40 percent increase from 2016. Average yield of 1,075 pounds per acre is the fourth best. Five-year average is 1,148 pounds per acre. “We produced 1.42 million bales in 2017,” Dodds says. “That’s up 25 percent from 2016.” He estimates 2018 plantings at 650,000 to 700,000 acres.

Alabama yields are slightly lower, averaging 904 pounds per acre last year, but still the third highest on record, says Sandlin. Acreage at 430,000 marks a 26 percent increase over 2016, and the 810,000 bales is a 15 percent increase over 2016. He anticipates Alabama farmers will plant 480,000 to 500,000 acres this year.

Tennessee acreage in 2017 was 350,000, and Raper expects farmers to push that to 400,000 this year. “Last year was the third year in a row that cotton farmers averaged more than 1,000 pounds per acre,” he says.

The price relationship of cotton to grain, he adds, in addition to the solid production numbers, supports increased cotton acreage. “Limiting factors include picker capacity, equipment constraints, and labor availability,” he says.

Robertson says Arkansas cotton producers harvested 438,000 acres last year, up 17 percent. The 1,260 pounds per acre average set a record and beat the 2016 average by 130 pounds. “Arkansas has a five-year average cotton yield of 1,130 pounds. The 1.1 million bale production is up 31 percent from 2016.”

He expects Arkansas cotton producers will plant 500,000 acres this year.

Variety Is Top Priority

Specialists also emphasized variety selection as a key aspect of maintaining yields.

Dodds  emphasized in several presentations this year that cotton farmers should make educated decisions with variety selection. “This is the first area for maximizing your investment,” he says.

He offers variety trial analyses that show the difference between a top yielding variety and a median variety can mean a significant difference in yield and return. That holds for both dryland and irrigated acreage.

A 2017 trial shows the highest yield variety at 1,182 pounds per acre. The median variety produced 1,018 pounds per acre. The 164-pound difference would mean $120 per acre if cotton is 73 cents a pound. The difference between the highest and lowest yielding variety results in a 297-pound difference and $217 less per acre.

The difference between median and lowest is 133 pounds and $97 less per acre.

On dryland acreage, highest yield at 1,228 pounds per acre is 138 pounds better than the median variety, and brings in $101 more per acre, at 73 cents.

Difference between highest and lowest is a 268-pound and $194 per acre advantage for the top variety. The median variety is 130 pounds and $95 better than the lowest variety.

Dodds says those results are similar for 2016.

Specialists emphasize that producers should pay attention to variety trials, but not just for one year. They recommend looking at performance over multiple years and multiple locations.

“And don’t just consider performance,” Dodds says. “Every variety can win or lose a variety trial. Look at how frequently a variety performs near the top and near the bottom. Stability is the key.”

Specialists say looking at varieties across time, locations, soil types, rainfall amounts, planting dates and management styles will be important considerations in variety selection.

Robertson recommends growers consider leaf grade characteristics. “We have seen some varietal differences,” he says, “so leaf grade should be a part of variety selection criteria.

“It is hard to get a good yield and then get cut for leaf grade. We need to avoid discounts.”

They also recommend a close look at micronaire.

For more information on variety trial results, check these links: Tennessee - https://bit.ly/2pJzoak ; Mississippi - https://bit.ly/1opUFPO ; Arkansas - https://bit.ly/2fYNNKy

Harvest Issues

One of the last decisions farmers make in a cotton season is harvest date, and it’s a decision many often get wrong, says Robertson. “A pocket knife should be an important tool in determining harvest aid timing,” he says. “Take a knife to the field and cut some bolls. A green, lush, actively growing field may be mature enough to defoliate with 30 percent open bolls. Cut enough bolls to make sure.”

Dodds says farmers often “underestimate percent of open bolls and delay defoliation.”

He also recommends producers look closely at costs and says the highest yield is not always the most profitable. Seeding rate, he says, is one area farmers may consider to reduce production expense.

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