Spending money wisely means keeping the essentials in mind. Variety, fiber quality, fertilizer, weed control, and spraying for bugs are a few top cotton farming essentials that can make or break your profit.
Darrin Dodds, Mississippi State University Extension cotton specialist and department head for Plant and Soil Sciences, discussed farming cotton for a profit at the Mississippi Agricultural Consultants Association (MACA) 47th Annual Conference at Mississippi State University in February.
Variety and fiber quality
Variety is a critical factor that makes or breaks a farmer's yield, he said.
"When it comes to farming for a profit, I don't think you can make a single more important decision than picking a good variety," Dodds said. "Picking a variety will have a financial impact that is unbelievable. We have had growers who planted a variety that yield was off a hundred pounds compared to another variety on their farms, and it was over 2,000 acres. The financial impact of a hundred pounds on 2,000 acres at 65 cent cotton is $130,000."
Fiber quality is also an important factor in cotton profitability.
"If you're going to make 1,400 pounds but the fiber quality isn't good, you aren't going to have as good a return on your investment," he said. "Most fiber quality parameters are driven by genetics. There are management tools you can use, but I would tell you every time to pick the variety that is going to put pounds in the picker for you. Most of our varieties have good fiber quality."
Fertilizer and lime
Fertility also plays a role, Dodds said. Over the last decade, mid- to late-season potassium deficiencies have become more common.
"I believe this issue ties back to yields over the last eight years," Dodds said. "For eight years in a row, we have been over 1,000-pound yield average in the state. Last year, as tough as 2019 was, we still averaged 1,097 pounds in Mississippi. With years of higher yields, potassium deficiencies mid- to late-season are bound to happen.
"If you have soil that is truly deficient in potassium, you cannot make it up with a foliar application, but research on potash applications drive the point home that if you are truly dealing with a deficiency, potash is needed to minimize the deficiency. I would argue that 160 pounds of potash is going to cost you about the same amount of money as four foliar applications. I would also argue dry potash is a wiser choice for your wallet.
"If you have soil that shows good potassium levels, have been doing soil tests regularly, and fertilizing, you don't need 250, 300, 350 pounds of potash. What I would try to do in that situation is to maintain where I'm at. Spend money wisely. If you look at the numbers from a soil test, it will tell you where you need to be."
If a field is already deficient or approaching deficiency, it will take time to rebuild the soil.
"Potassium is an investment you can’t afford not to make," he said.
Roots and weeds
Taking care of the root is essential to a healthy plant, which needs a pH of about 6.0 or greater.
"Roots search for water and nutrients," Dodds said. "If the weather is dry, a deep root system will help get you through it."
Weed control is another factor in profitability.
"Palmer amaranth is one of the main weeds of concern now," he said. "A single Palmer amaranth plant in 30 feet of row can cause up to 15% yield reduction. If you're making a 1,000-pound crop, you're giving up 150 pounds from one Palmer amaranth plant. If that one plant is a female with seeds, you're dropping 300,000 to 1 million seeds back in the soil.
"I have never been able to figure out how to make a foliar fungicide pay for itself in cotton," Dodds said. "I've tried every way I know how, but with the market at 68 cent December cotton, we need to spend money wisely."
A cotton leaf at 16 to 18 days old is at its prime for providing nutrients to the plant. After about 25 days, the productivity of the leaf starts declining.
"At 60 days, the leaf has done what it's going to do," he said. "If you plant cotton May 1, you're at five-leaf cotton around the third week in May. By the second week of August, you're over 90 days after planting, so the leaf is no longer contributing much to the plant. In my opinion, that's why it's difficult to make a foliar fungicide pay for itself because some of the leaves we're protecting or trying to protect are not necessarily contributing to the fruit on the plant."
"Don't spend money frivolously," Dodds said. "It seems simple to say, but we get in the heat of the battle, and sometimes we spend more money than we needed to.
"Picking a variety, spraying bugs, and taking care of weeds are essentials. Spend your money there and do what you can to maximize your return on your investment.
"Also, be willing to change. Whether it's going to cover crops or putting drain tile in some fields, you need to be willing to change when necessary."