Jay Mahaffey, manager of Monsanto’s Learning Center in Scott, Miss., has been on the development side of cotton innovation for over 23 years. During this year’s Southern Cotton Ginners Association annual meeting, he provided personal insight into decades of technology-development that have improved farming for generations of southern row crop growers.
“I’m paid by Monsanto, but I work for our producers,” says MaHaffey, a Science Fellow (or research investigator). “What we do here at Scott applies to a broader geography and set of issues than what I’m directly assigned to do.”
Research conducted on 130 acres just two years ago now encompasses over 350 acres, and that growth has occurred because of questions and issues growers have asked them to address. “I don’t talk about specific products unless I’m talking to a single grower about their individual operation or field,” adds MaHaffey. “We work to advance agronomics and improve the way products are used.”
From Where We Came
In the 1970s and early 1980s, growers were inundated with weed and insect control issues, varieties were short-lived and growth control problems abounded until PGRs hit the market. Defoliation was inconsistent, growers planted everything early and crop diseases were the norm. “Then pyrethroids were available that helped on some level — that era was sort of static,” says MaHaffey.
In 1986 budworm resistance to pyrethroids was confirmed in Texas and by 1988 it was across Mississippi, and into western Alabama. Defoliation remained a problem and the boll weevil was such a disruptive influence to cotton production, all producers were basically in the same boat. “Boll weevils got me involved in the cotton industry,” remembers MaHaffey. “Overnight, growers were trying to manage budworms and boll weevils simultaneously.”
From 1996 to 2000, boll weevil eradication was having a positive impact and bio-tech traits became available which helped varieties like Delta Pine 555 break yield records across the Mid-South and Southeast.
“Bollgard III was like one of my children. I worked on Bollgard in graduate school and helped develop Flex,” says MaHaffey. “Bollgard III will have to be placed in varieties with good agronomic traits to produce fiber quality premiums because we are a seller on the world market now.”
Yields have increased thanks to improved fruit retention. Longer growing seasons mean more nodes on each plant, and today, growing seasons are longer than ever before. “Think about the time when every plant had a stick growing out of the top where we just succumbed to the wrath of the boll weevil,” says MaHaffey. “Growers either ran out of money or effort!”
While seed breeding has made significant strides in varietal improvements, MaHaffey has watched the growing system itself change. There are less determinant varieties being grown, and the fundamentals of how growers manage them has changed. “I’ll bet the earliest varieties we grow today are a lot like the mid-season varieties we grew 20 or 30 years ago,” adds MaHaffey. “This can be a net-positive as long as growers acknowledge upfront that aggressive growth management is paramount.”
Cotton withstands environmental stresses that will cause larger yield decreases in other crops. In 1995, producers dedicated nearly 17 million acres to cotton. “We had so many cotton acres because many growers were putting it in on their marginal ground,” says MaHaffey. “Many of those acres were also dryland.”
Growers are placing racehorse varieties on some of their best soils now, and that requires more intensive management. Fiber quality has improved dramatically. Both length and strength are setting new benchmarks for upland cotton.
“Over the last 15 years, we have seen the average length for U.S. upland cotton increase by 2 staple units, and strength improve by 1.7 gram per tex,” says Vikki Martin, vice president, Fiber Competition, Cotton Incorporated. “Anything we can do to improve fiber quality, and specifically to reduce variability of quality, will help make cotton easier to process for our textile customers and potentially expand cotton’s use in critical market categories like athletic wear and womenswear.”
Speaking on behalf of the Mid-South Cotton Specialist Working Group at this year’s Southern Cotton Ginners Meeting, Mississippi State University, associate Extension professor Darrin Dodds expressed surprise at how far cotton yields have come. “Three of the last six years, our state’s average yields were over 1,200 pounds. I didn’t think that was attainable 10 years ago.”
It used to be producers wanted three things; yield, yield, and yield. Yield paid the bills, but today’s buyers are expecting to see impressive fiber qualities as well. “Over the last 10 to 15 years, our growers have really taken the quality of the fiber they produce to the next level,” says Frederick Barrier, vice president, North American Sales, Staplcotn. “Today’s cotton growers understand they are in a globally-competitive cotton market, and to reach their potential economic return, they are managing each year’s crop to maximize both yield and quality.”
MaHaffey encourages growers to evaluate varieties for how they respond to the environment. Plant mapping is the means to interpreting the signs offered by the plant. “We monitor cotton plants in our trials to see how aggressive it is or isn’t growing by using internode elongation,” explains MaHaffey. “That’s typically something folks don’t want to do in a cotton field when it’s 90-plus degrees and dry as a bone.”
Internode elongation will tell you if the plant is growing too slowly or too fast, and whether it needs moisture or an application of plant growth regulator (PGR). “If you look at the last three or four nodes, you’ll have 10 days of growth history in front of you,” says MaHaffey. “Just remember, PGRs don’t shrink plants. It’s a regulator, and once plants are too tall, that horse is out of the gate.”
Cotton’s Yield Increases by Era of Production
Another interesting research plot at the Scott facility was grown to illustrate just how far the yield potential of modern-day cotton varieties have come since 1934. Each four-row plot of decreasing length will yield the same amount of lint (per-acre yield average) based on the year in which it would have been produced. “The longest four rows simulate per-acre yield in 1934, the next four illustrate 1954, the next 1974, the next 1994, the next 2004, while the shortest four rows illustrate the number of cotton plants needed in 2014 to yield the same amount of fiber produced in 1934.” explains Mahaffey.
The trial confirms that varieties and the management system of today are between four and five times more productive than varieties and production practices from the 1930s. Per-acre yields back in the 1930s were almost 200 pounds an acre. Per-acre yields in 2016 averaged just below 867 pounds.
“When our growers are generating that amount of fiber with the improved fiber qualities I’m seeing, it reaffirms to me that the future in cotton production is bright,” concludes MaHaffey.