Southwest cotton farmers face the unenviable task this year of coping with a new farm program that all but ignores them, as well as the higher costs of additional herbicide applications to control resistant weeds—all with the prospect of a market that may not offer more than 60 cents a pound, if that.
The temptation to cut production costs is understandable, says Gaylon Morgan, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension state cotton specialist, College Station. But wholesale cuts could mean digging a deeper hole
“We can’t cut weed control,” he adds. Farmers across the state, and especially in the High Plains, saw a “bumper crop” of resistant weeds develop last year, especially Palmer amaranth (pigweed) that took advantage of better growing conditions to thrive following three years of severe drought.
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Many of those plants escaped control attempts and went to seed, setting up some fields for even heavier infestations this year. Taking short cuts on weed control, Morgan says, could mean significant yield loss, possibly even fields that can’t be harvested.
“Some farmers could see weed control costs double this year,” Morgan says. A systems approach will be necessary to manage resistance. That will require going back to some old technology, including a burndown herbicide, a pre-plant incorporated herbicide application, residual materials at planting and rotating or combining multiple modes-of-action herbicides for post emergence treatments. That program could cost from $35 to more than $50 per acre. What some refer to as a “Cadillac” treatment or “zero tolerance” could cost even more.
Morgan says producers may trim a little from the total expense by banding some herbicides and choosing generic products when available. But they cannot cut corners and expect to manage glyphosate-resistant pigweed
Few places to cut costs
Unfortunately, farmers have few options to make big cuts in production costs, Morgan says, but they may fine-tune some practices to discover savings.
Fertility may offer an opportunity to save money, for instance. Backing off on fertilizer may be unwise in some cases and result in lower yields and reduced profit potential. Some fields, however, will have nutrients available that can be credited to crop needs. It’s simply a matter of soil testing to see.
Deep soil sampling could be a money saver this year, Morgan says. Numerous tests in both Texas and Oklahoma have shown that nutrients, especially nitrogen, may be available in amounts significant enough to reduce fertilizer need. In some cases, soil-residual nitrogen may be adequate to meet a cotton crop’s total nitrogen requirement.
Some farmers made a decent crop last year and may think the crop took all the nitrogen available. That may be true, but Morgan says the three “horrible years” previously may have banked more nutrients than some expect.
That’s why deep sampling is important, especially for nitrogen, which is the biggest fertilizer input cost for most farmers. “Farmers need to know what’s available to the plants,” he says. A 6-inch sample is not the whole picture of what nutrients are available to the plant and is not the most accurate information needed to make a sound fertility judgment. This is especially true in reduced tillage systems where nutrient stratification is more likely to occur.
“Take samples down to 12, 18 or even 24 inches to determine what is actually available to the plants, in addition to the usual 6-inch tests. Also, make sure the soil test laboratory conducts a soil nitrate test, because nitrate testing is not a routine analysis for all laboratories.
Morgan says hundreds of cotton fields in Texas and in Oklahoma have been tested by Extension personnel over the past few years. Many fields have sufficient soil residual nitrogen to grow one to two bales of cotton with no additional nitrogen fertilizer. But a representative soil sample and analysis for nitrates is essential to determine the available nitrogen in the soil.
“Don’t make a decision to reduce fertilizer rates unless you have high confidence in sampling methodology and results,” he notes. The rule of thumb is 50 pounds of nitrogen to make one bale of cotton.
Soil test an investment
Soil testing could be one of the better investments cotton producers make for 2015, he adds.
Another sound investment will be “taking time to evaluate varieties for yield and quality. Variety selection is the most important decision a cotton farmer makes. It’s one way to optimize yield, and yield starts with genetics.
“Consider quality traits, as well,” says Morgan. “High quality cotton is what the market wants.”
He says fertility and variety selection are two decisions that pay dividends at harvest time. “We can’t cut corners on either and make yield goals.” That’s why investing the time to soil test and evaluate varieties will be more important this year.
He concedes that the top-producing, highest quality varieties are not cheap. “Some producers may want to try conventional varieties this year to save money, but make sure you have good information on the yield performance of these varieties.” Availability of seed could be an issue with that strategy and will limit variety options.
Good quality seed makes sense, too, Morgan says. “Look at both the cool and warm vigor ratings,” he advises. “The warm rating is on the seed bag. The seed companies have the cool germination test for their varieties if you ask for them.”
He said these tests are especially important if farmers choose to reduce seeding rates to trim costs.
Reduce seeding rate?
Reducing plant populations may offer another cost savings, Morgan says, but, again, he advises caution. “How low can we go without affecting yield?”
He says test have shown producers can reduce plant population to one plant per foot of row without a yield reduction in South and East Texas. “But the stand must be uniform. When we have big skips, yields begin to drop off quickly.”
South Texas cotton farmers, he adds, have a bit more flexibility on seeding rate than do Rolling Plains and High Plains growers. The season is longer, heat units accumulate more predictably and plants have more time to compensate for lower stands. Moisture also is typically more dependable.
Morgan says a three-year study in South Texas has shown that a cotton plot could suffer more than a 60-percent stand reduction (with a 45,000 per acre seed drop rate) before yield begins to drop.
“But the stand has to be uniform. The crop can compensate if it has time and moisture. In the High Plains, growers should probably target final stand needs of around 27,000 plants per acre on dryland and about 40,000 plants per acre in irrigated fields.”
Planting date may also be a factor in optimizing yield, he says. “Soil temperature is key. At 4 inches down, soil temperature should be above 62 degrees and forecast should be favorable five days out—daytime temperatures above 75 degrees and nighttime temperatures above 50. If producers decide to push planting date earlier, they need to make certain they get a cool vigor test and choose a variety with good vigor.”
Taking care of the basics, Morgan says, may not show up immediately on the balance sheet, but doing things like adjusting planters to be certain that placement and depth are exact will improve the odds of a uniform stand. “Make sure planters and other equipment are in the best shape possible before the season,” he says.
Cotton producers likely will not count on good prices to make a profit this season. And they can’t count on a government support program to help bridge the cost/price gap. Crop insurance, either the traditional policies or the new options, the Stacked Income Protection Plan (STAX) or the Supplemental Coverage Option (SCO), provides the only safety net.
Production cost cuts may seem a viable option but lost yield may show input reduction to be a false economy. A hard look at every aspect of the farm operation, including seeding rate, potential to use residual nutrients, banding some products instead of broadcasting and selecting varieties to fit specific field conditions and expected production practices may prove to be the most economical strategy to cope with a depressed market.