Better varieties, improved technology, and economics make it imperative that cotton farmers be more aggressive with newer varieties, says a cotton research scientist with Bayer Crop Sciences.
Decades of change, says Jay Mahaffey, Bayer Learning Center manager and science fellow at Scott. Miss., requires farmers to alter production practices.
“Cotton production has been under revision for the last 15 to 20 years,” Mahaffey said at the Southern Cotton Ginners Association and Foundation annual meeting Feb. 28, held on the eve of the Mid-South Farm and Gin show in Memphis.
Change has been a constant since the 1920s Mahaffey adds. “At one time the United States planted 26 million to 27 million acres of cotton, back in the in 1920s.” One reason for that acreage was that cotton made money but it also responded to poor growing conditions.
Today, U.S. cotton takes a fraction of that acreage, but production efficiency makes up the difference. Mahaffey showed a slide of cotton test plots at the Bayer research farm that depicts how much acreage is required now to produce the same amount of cotton produced when acreage was much higher. New varieties, production techniques, elimination of the boll weevil and other advancements allow producers to make more cotton today on a fraction of the acreage farmers planted in the 1920s.
Mahaffey says nearly 100 years of innovation and change demands a more complex crop management approach.
Some of the more recent innovations in varieties have resulted in improved boll retention, higher turnout, and better fiber quality.
Turnout, he says, has improved from about 28 to 30 percent on the higher side to nearer 40 percent.
“Boll retention is significantly higher than it was in the 1990s,” he adds, “up from 53 percent in 1997 to 80 percent. Cotton bolls do not shed like they used to.”
He says newer varieties mature more first position bolls. “But we have to manage cotton more aggressively. We must adapt to each new variety and each innovation. We’ve done this before.”
He lists mechanization, the introduction of herbicides and more effective insecticides, including pyrethroids, back in the mid-20th Century, as key changes that altered management.
Improved varieties toward the end of the century, including introduction of Bollgard and Roundup Ready cotton, and increased use of seed treatments moved the bar even higher.
Boll weevil eradication, he adds, was a critical factor in improving yields. “We have moved on to a different world.”
The 21st Century built on the genetically engineered varieties.
“Varieties are the most exciting thing,” Mahaffey says. “We are excited to find ways to make cotton more valuable. But growers have to consider those new varieties and understand how they behave, what they will do and what they won’t do. Some differences will affect yield and fiber quality.”
He refers to the Deltapine variety 555. “It was a small-seeded variety that was hard to gin.” It was also different in the field. “It was a different animal, but farmers learned to manage it agronomically.”
He says about 20 percent of planted acreage was the highest 555 ever achieved. “A new DPL variety went far beyond that this year.
“The point is, we must maintain focus on each new variety, each innovation to manage cotton. Yes, we can set more fruit now, but we also have to support that fruit before it sheds. A cotton plant still sheds, but it sheds less.”
And producers must manage cotton to protect as many of those extra bolls as they can. Variety changes have been mostly positive, Mahaffey says, but those changes mean farmers must adapt management practices.
Cotton is attracting some new producers, Mahaffey says. “We have changed from a time when we had cotton farmers who grow grain to grain farmers who grow cotton.”
Those farmers are learning that cotton is a different proposition.
“Corn growers make most decisions up front,” Mahaffey explains. “Cotton farmers have many in-season management decisions. They react to changing conditions.”
Mahaffey says learning more about soybeans and corn in cotton rotations offers new opportunities for researchers and producers.
He also mentions cutting edge research, such as studies into the importance of seed size on yield and the value of cottonseed at the gin. Ultra-low gossypol cottonseed, for instance, offers potential to increase the value of cotton by expanding the livestock feed opportunities.
Change, he says, is constant but not always quick. Incorporating ultra-low gossypol and other innovations into production systems “happens slowly, but we have to keep innovation going.”
Looking at where we’ve been helps. “Consider the progress we’ve made just in the time most of us can remember.”
Varieties released recently, he says, initiated change. “We learn new things as a result of new cotton products.” Plant growth on some of the newer, high turnout, earlier varieties should be managed differently. Materials used on some of these varieties had to change, too.
Yield Increase Factors
Mahaffey poses the question: “Where does innovation, yield gain come from?” Better pesticides and better plant growth regulators are factors. Higher turnout is also part of the equation.
He says the effect of fruit retention on yield is a research issue. Maturity range is also a factor. “We can harvest fruit over a longer period now. We harvest cotton much earlier than ever before, except for last year,” he said. Wet harvest across much of the Cotton Belt delayed harvest by weeks.
Less determinant varieties must be managed appropriately. The goal of innovation and research, Mahaffey says, is to maintain the forward momentum in yield and fiber quality. And technology adoption by farmers must continue. He refers to the earlier comment abut cotton in the 1920s doing well on less than ideal soil. The same is often true today.
“Now, some of our best cotton is not on the most desirable soils. The bottom line, today’s varieties require more aggressive management than before.
“I see a bright future in cotton. And I am excited to be talking to growers coming back to cotton.”