Mid-South growers peruse Western cotton production

Darrington Seward and a small entourage of Mid-South cotton growers traveled to Arizona and California in late June to glean cotton-growing ideas and wisdom from Western growers that just might have a fit back home in their Mississippi and Louisiana cotton fields.

“Arizona cotton farmers are very efficient at managing resources including water,” said Seward, who farms 16,000 acres of cotton, corn, soybeans, rice, and winter wheat in Yazoo City, Miss. “Water in the West is utilized very judiciously as a precious resource.”

Seven Mid-South cotton producers participated in the Cotton Foundation Producer Information Exchange (PIE) Program, now in its 20th year. The tour is supported by a grant from Bayer CropScience to the Cotton Foundation.

Other Mississippi cotton producers on the PIE tour included: Marc Archer, Greenwood; Brian Vanlandingham, Greenville; and Justin Jefcoat, Itta Bena. Louisiana producers on the trip included: John Carroll, Gilbert; Robbie Duncan, Pineville; and Stephen Logan, Gilliam.

In Phoenix the farmers toured the USDA pink bollworm sterile moth laboratory where more than 40 million moths are grown daily during the cotton growing season for aerial release on cotton fields in selected parts of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California.

Seward’s entire 2008 cotton crop is for Deltapine seed. About 60 percent (540 acres) of his cotton acreage is furrow and center pivot irrigated. This spring 3 to 4 inches of rain per week drenched cotton fields. Seward’s cotton crop was growing well in late June but hadn’t flowered when he headed for the PIE tour.

“Higher prices moved me more into more grain production this year. On heavier soils we opted to move from cotton to soybeans,” Seward said. “We’ve also moved more into a cotton-corn rotation because we’ve seen lint increases of several hundred pounds when cotton was planted behind corn.”

California-based PIE tour stops included a roller gin, cotton farms, a Bayer CropScience research facility, an almond processing facility, and a vineyard.

Justin Jefcoat said growing cotton in the West is a “totally different ballgame. I can’t imagine growing cotton in this heat. It doesn’t cool off here at night compared to Mississippi. It’s interesting that Western cotton growers can make high yields with this heat.”

When the Mid-South farmers arrived in Arizona, daytime temperatures flirted around 113 degrees.

Jefcoat looked forward to learning more about drip irrigation. “Drip irrigation is interesting since we don’t have any where I farm. I’m not sure if it’s economically feasible (in the Mid-South) since we have other sources of water available. We sometimes take our water for granted. It’s much more plentiful.”

On Jefcoat’s farm, Lakeside Planting Company, spring rains pushed back planting Stoneville and Deltapine seed from late April to early to mid-May. “We have a good cotton stand and a pretty good stalk right now,” Jefcoat said. “I’m fairly optimistic.”

Since the heavy rains stopped, Jefcoat had gone without rain for five weeks and then left for the PIE tour. “We may have to irrigate the cotton before lay-by, which we don’t like to do.”

His irrigation regimen includes 60 percent furrow and 40 percent pivot. Delayed planting could lead to late-season insect pressure, especially with plant bugs given the large amount of corn planted in the area.

“I like growing cotton,” said Jefcoat. “While many acres have shifted from cotton to corn and soybeans this year due to prices, I want to stay with cotton if possible because that’s what I like to do. It’s a challenge, but I like challenges.”

Growing cotton in the Mid-South and the West each has its challenges.

“They don’t have (an abundance of) water, but they don’t have the insect pressure that we have in the Mid-South,” Jefcoat said. “Cotton should be protected from squaring to maturity from thrips, aphids, and plant bugs.” Jefcoat pays more than $30 per acre on average for insect control.

Cotton grower John Carroll said his 900 acres of cotton at Gilbert, La., are looking decent so far this year. About 80 percent of the acreage planted in Stoneville and Deltapine varieties is irrigated.

Carroll was also interested in Western drip irrigation. “Drip irrigation is different and new to us (in the Mid-South) and I’d like to find out if drip could ever benefit us,” Carroll said. “It could, especially if we ever had to ration water the way they do in the West.”

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