Variety selection, uniformity are keys to cotton quality

Cotton producer Joe Bostick can't control every factor for producing high-quality, high-yield cotton. But the ones he can control get his full attention.

After harvest, Bostick cuts his stalks and runs soil samples where needed. Lime and maybe potash will go out in the fall and winter months. Having on-farm fertilizer bins and application equipment means he's able to spread when and how he wants to. He also uses homogenized fertilizer rather than blends, because it breaks down into the soil more predictably.

He'll burn down in the spring, about five weeks before planting with Roundup and 2,4-D, then go with another burndown of Roundup right before planting. Bottom land is planted on raised beds and hill ground is planted flat. A pyrethroid goes out behind the planter for cutworms, a must in Bostick's 100 percent no-till program.

He plants the majority of his acres in DP 444 BG/RR, the rest in DP 555 BG/RR, ST 5242 BR, BG 28R and DP 432 R. Joe Lamp with Agriliance makes sure Bostick gets ample supplies of seed for planting. Bostick uses a seed treater he purchased for $1,200 to apply Delta Coat AD, PGR-IV and Orthene to his seed. He figures he can treat his own for about 50 percent less than a commercially applied treatment. “We've had excellent results,” says Bostick.

He'll put out 5-20-20 prior to planting, then knife in additional nitrogen after he establishes a stand. He'll make one over-the-top Roundup application before the fifth true leaf, then come in with a directed spray of Roundup, followed by a layby of MSMA and diuron. No hooded sprayers are used on Bostick's operation.

Bostick says a different weed emerges as a problem each year. This year, crabgrass is the culprit, according to Bostick's consultant, Homer Wilson. “We put out some Prowl this year. It helped in some places, but didn't in others. This is the worse crabgrass we've seen in years. We just had one flush after another.”

Bostick starts applying plant growth regulator at pinhead square, preferring to go with smaller, more frequent applications to hedge against dry weather. In addition, smaller doses of PGRs at more frequent intervals create a more uniform boll set and a more uniform boll growth, which also contributes to more consistent cotton quality.

The only significant rainfall this season came from three hurricanes/tropical storms that tore through the Gulf of Mexico. “The rain helped because we were excessively dry,” Bostick said. But it also brought damage. Early on, winds blew the young cotton over. Later, after cotton was opening up, winds from Rita blew cotton out of the bolls.

The seed treatment of Orthene takes care of thrips, although the producer will spot spray for the pests on occasion. Spider mites were a problem this year, which Bostick took care of with Bidrin on the first spray and Comite on the second. Two applications of Centric were directed at plant bugs. Stink bugs, mostly greens, are the hidden pest that producers don't think about, according to Wilson. The pest was controlled with Orthene and Bidrin.

Some odd pests have appeared in the past few years, such as snails and slugs. “We haven't had economical damage, but it has gotten our attention,” Wilson said. Meanwhile, the elimination of the boll weevil “has helped us tremendously in how we manage our other pests.”

Bostick defoliates his crop at around 60 percent open, although this year he pulled the trigger at 50 percent. He applied Finish and ET in a one-time application. Strong winds from Hurricane Rita helped out at defoliation this year, according to Wilson. “Cotton started defoliating itself. So it didn't take much on rates and we have not had a leaf sticking problem.”

He picks the crop with two John Deere 9960s and one 9970 (all four-row harvesters), one module builder and Boll Buggy.

“Picking time is hard to beat,” Bostick says, although this year's yields dropped off due to a couple of weeks of hot, dry weather in mid-August, between hurricanes. “We were already low on moisture and the heat just took its toll. We lost a lot of top bolls.”

Timely rains pushed yields towards 1,000 pounds in 2003 and 2004, but could drop to between 750 pounds and 800 pounds this year. That still would be a profitable crop for Bostick, who figures he needs about 600 pounds to break even, with input costs of between $260 and $280 an acre.

In any event, new varieties seem to handle the drought better these days, according to Wilson. “We get a much quicker fruit set on these varieties. For the most part, we don't experience a lot of drought during the fruit set time.”

Bostick gins his cotton at Servico Gin, in Courtland, Ala. The gin, operated by ginner and former National Cotton Council chairman Bobby Greene, is one of the more technologically-advanced gins in the world, using IntelliGin gin process control and new Continental LouverMax lint cleaners. These two technologies can minimize overcleaning at the gin and maximize returns for the grower. “They do a real good job,” Bostick said. “Our grades overall have been good.”

In fact, the consistent quality of his crop helped him sell his cotton mill-direct to Parkdale Mills for four years, from 1998 to 2002. Today, he markets his crop through Autauga Marketing.

Quality begins with variety selection and is preserved by the producer's ability to produce a uniform crop, “but in the end, a lot depends on how much rain falls at harvest and when,” Bostick says.

Bostick is always ready for the challenge. Wilson recalls a meeting where someone remarked that there was some cotton being produced in northeast Mississippi, “but that it wouldn't be there long.”

The population of cotton producers in this region has definitely thinned out some, but Bostick is still here, making a good living on a consistent, quality cotton crop. “He must be doing something right,” Wilson said.

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