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Cotton’s slump – it’s not just the economics for Arkansas producer

Corn has been a strong and consistent yielder for Tillar, Ark., farmer Steve Stevens. Unfortunately, cotton has demonstrated an instability in yield over the last few years due to high temperatures and late season storms.      

Like many cotton producers in the Mid-South, Steve Stevens has made a big shift away from cotton over the last few years, mostly because of higher input costs in cotton and more favorable prices for corn and soybeans. But there is a story behind the decision to change, and it’s not necessarily all about economics.

Stevens farms about 4,500 acres of crop land around Tillar, Ark., this year, including 1,650 acres of corn, 2,530 acres of soybeans, 200 acres of wheat and 120 acres of cotton.

His cotton acres have dropped in each of the last five years, from 2,400 acres in 2009, to 1,800 acres in 2010, to 1,400 acres in 2011 and to 1,100 acres in 2012. Now there’s just enough for a variety trial and a cotton Arkansas Discovery Farm project. Discovery Farms are privately owned farms on which demonstrations and research regarding the environmental impact of agricultural production is conducted.

One of the big reasons Stevens was hesitant to plant more cotton this year was the huge world carryover in cotton, projected by USDA in July at a record 94.3 million bales. “I couldn’t see prices being favorable. Also, last year we booked a lot of corn for $6.50 and some more at $6.30.

“I also felt like corn gave us the opportunity to rotate a lot of this ground out of cotton and do something good for the soil. Some of it’s been in cotton for 40 years. It also gives us an alternative for weed control that I think can help us with pigweed resistance. And we’re growing something that our country needs and the export market needs.”

An underlying story for lower cotton acres has been poor yield consistency on Stevens’ farm and in southeast Arkansas over the last few years, says Stevens. “The hot summers and hot nights are hitting us. We might have 10 days of high humidity and boll rot, or it might be a pretty heavy blow from hurricane in late August or early September. But too many years out of five, something has hit us on cotton and our yields aren’t stable anymore. Without stable yields, it’s hard to grow a crop, especially one with high input costs.”

Those input costs include cotton planting seed at $125 an acre, and the fact that plant bugs “are a constant nag, like boll weevils were,” Stevens said. There is also the effect of higher corn prices on the cost of fertilizer.

Corn has demonstrated the yield stability that Stevens needs to continue farming. “With our ability to irrigate, we are able to produce 200-plus bushels of corn consistently. We had some fields last year that went 260 bushels to 270 bushels. One farm averaged 244 bushels per acre. The rest of it averaged between 225 bushels and 230 bushels per acre.”

Stevens noted that 10 to 15 years ago, the Delta corn crop was often hit with discounts from aflatoxin. “I think we have three things that have helped us with that. One is genetics. Probably the biggest thing is irrigation. We know now that once a week, we water corn. We’ve been growing corn pretty heavily since 2008, and we’ve been pretty consistent at around 200 bushels per acre, with some years being a bonus to that.”

The third component, Afla-Guard, is a biological product for corn. “I run Afla-Guard on 100 percent of my corn acreage. That’s just an insurance policy that I don’t mind paying.”

As many producers have pointed out, corn is also a less complicated crop to grow. “We’ve had fun growing corn,” Stevens said. “Corn is a textbook crop. You have to get with the program to get everything done in time. But once you get all of your fertilizers and weed control out, and get the pipe laid, it’s basically water and water until harvest.”

What Stevens doesn’t like about corn are the long waits in line at the elevator. “We have not invested in bin technology, and we are running eight trucks to keep one combine going.”

Stevens says he isn’t ready to count cotton out just yet. “I haven’t made that choice that we’re going to get out of cotton. We’ve just taken a breather for a year, and hopefully we can ramp acres back up. We’ll have to see.”

Stevens noted that 90-cent cotton and $4 corn (which some analysts are projecting for corn) might provide an incentive to plant more cotton. “But I think cotton has got to find some new varieties that can give us some stable yields to be viable again. And we also need better prices. But with the world carryover situation, I just don’t know what our future is.”

Stevens is also concerned about cotton losing its infrastructure if declines in acreage continue. “I hate to see the gins diminishing as they are, but it may be something that we can’t stop,” Stevens said. “It could be that the foreign countries can grow cotton cheaper than what we can here in the United States.”

Nonetheless, Stevens is holding on to his cotton equipment, including his John Deere 9996 harvester. “I’m just trying to hang in there and be flexible and go with the flow for a year or two. I’m hoping cotton will come back at some point, but I don’t think we will ever have the cotton acreage that we had in 1995 when Arkansas had 1.2 million acres.”

In the meantime, the landscape around southeast Arkansas will look decidedly different.

 “With as much corn being planted, it’s not as safe as it used to be around here,” Stevens joked. “Every time you pull out on a road, you can’t see around the corner because the corn is 10 feet tall.”


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