In 2016, cotton producers across the Mid-South states planted 405,000 more acres than they did in 2015. Arkansas producers increased their acreage more than any other of the five states, dedicating an additional 170,000 acres to cotton. Producers in Mississippi increased their plantings by 115,000 acres.
“As I drove across the Mid-South last year attending industry and ginner meetings, it was very satisfying to see so many farmers increasing their cotton acreage. I hope that momentum continues as our industry associations work to strengthen the farm program on cotton’s behalf and recapture markets lost to synthetic fibers, because cotton production boosts the overall economic viability of our region much more than other row crops,” says Tim Price, executive vice president, Southern Cotton Ginners Association, and the driving force behind the organization of each year’s Mid-South Farm & Gin Show.
After falling under the cumulative million-acre mark in 2015, 2016 can be remembered as the year when Mid-South cotton did gain a little momentum. Price was not just glad to see that revitalizing momentum in cotton production, but wondered what it would take to sustain it.
Knowing he had the perfect venue and audience with which to share a message tailored around that question, he invited each of the Mid-South cotton Extension specialists to combine their expertise, insights, and most current research findings to deliver a unified set of recommendations that could help cotton growers accomplish that goal.
A panel discussion and presentation highlighting five key factors was held at the Peabody Hotel in during the recent Southern Cotton Ginners Association and Foundation annual meeting.
“We are all in agreement that variety selection is the first critical aspect of a profitable and productive cotton season,” stated Dr. Tyson Raper, cotton and small grains specialist for the University of Tennessee, and the speaker chosen by the panel to deliver the group’s recommendations.
Research programs managed by the panel members combine to maintain an estimated 7,400 small and large variety research plots across more than 900 acres every year.
“With so many varietal choices on the commercial market today, no producer should underestimate the importance of matching a variety’s characteristics to all aspects of his farm’s environment. Proper variety selection can increase returns from $73 to $189 an acre,” said Darrin Dodds, associate Extension/research professor, cotton agronomics at Mississippi State University.
Raper reminded attendees that data produced by these Extension research projects is protected from errors. He encouraged farmers to avoid “field-by-field” comparisons and trust the replicated, randomized data from their unbiased research.
Pest management took the second spot on the group’s list, highlighting an increased complexity in controlling thrips. Although plant bugs remain the Mid-South’s number one yield-limiting pest, control of thrips via seed treatments is becoming frustratingly difficult.
“This year more than in the past, we started recommending foliar sprays to control thrips, and unfortunately in some areas, we’re also having to recommend foliar sprays to control worms in Bt cotton,” lamented Raper, who understands that products to control worms are expensive and can quickly escalate input costs.
As growers begin adopting Xtend and Enlist technologies to help control pigweed, Raper cautioned them to maintain proper stewardship of these newly labeled products or their efficacy could be short-lived. The Extension panel saw an increase in target spot and bacterial blight in 2016, but are advising growers to address management issues (like using PGRs to control plant height) for possible control of target spot before considering a foliar-applied fungicide.
Fertilizers and Lime
The group’s third factor to help maintain cotton’s momentum was the need to properly apply fertilizers and lime.
“Growers must maintain an adequate pH in their soils. After that has been addressed, they need to, in order of importance, look at nitrogen, potassium, and finally sulfur. We are generally advising growers to back off their nitrogen to an 80- to 90-pound rate an acre,” stated Raper.
Potassium deficiencies are common across Mid-South cotton operations and, according the Raper, sulfur is quickly becoming a nutrient of major concern because of a reduction in sulfur deposition from standard farming practice inputs and/or the atmosphere in general.
According to a study by the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, air pollution legislation to control fossil emissions and the associated acid rain has worked — perhaps leading to the need for sulfur fertilizers for crop production.
“We don’t think there are actual deficiencies yet, but clearly more sulfur is coming out of the soil and water than what is going in,” says Mark David, University of Illinois biogeochemist.
“Shifting the emphasis away from nitrogen and towards potassium and/or sulfur will reduce the need for some plant growth regulator use, assist in defoliation and plant bug control, and ultimately help increase a producer’s bottom line,” advised Raper.
With so much attention of late being directed toward water conservation and ongoing issues like the unsustainable volumes of water being drawn from the Mississippi River Valley Alluvial Aquifer due to the number of permitted wells across the Delta, the panel stressed the need for cotton producers to know when to start irrigation, how long to irrigate and, more importantly, when to stop.
“We have seen data from Georgia research that shows when properly timed, an acre inch of water can increase cotton yields in excess of 150 pounds per acre. On the downside, we consistently see variable expense increases and negative yield responses from over-irrigating,” added Raper.
Avoid Unnecessary Expenses
The last factor to help maintain cotton’s current momentum is avoiding unnecessary expenses. Raper says foliar fertilizers and fungicides top the list. Referring back to target spot, if growers can better control canopy height and width, Raper says, that could lead to a big reduction in incidence and the need for fungicide use.
“Convenience expenses also fall within this category. For example, approaches to midseason weed control have traditionally included post-directed or with hooded applications to reduce crop injury. Today, many people have replaced the post-direct and/or hooded rigs with an overspray boom. Although it’s clearly more convenient to manage midseason weed control with ‘over-the-top’ applications, we believe the potential injury associated with overspraying certain products can delay maturity, and possibly impact yield,” warned Raper.
To better service growers in the Mid-South, these Extension specialists formed the Mid-South Cotton Specialists Working Group (which also includes Trey Cutts and Tyler Sandlin, from Auburn University) in 2016.
“Our goal is to increase the efficiency and productivity of cotton production in the Mid-South through regional collaboration. We want to be more proactive responding to developing issues through regional projects and multi-state educational efforts,” concluded Raper.