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North Carolina cotton grower battling nematodes

North Carolina cotton grower battling nematodes

• Though most of the problems Mike Godley encountered growing cotton in the early years were painfully clear to him, perhaps the biggest problem — a build up of root-knot nematodes on some of his best cotton land — still challenges him today.

Bath, N.C., grower Mike Godley knows a thing or two about nematodes — he’s been battling the little critters for years and thanks to a new nematode resistant cotton variety he might just be winning the battle.

Godley farms about 1,200 acres of land, much of which has been farmed by his father and grand-father or by relatives for generations — his is truly a family farm and a Century Farm.

In 1999 he took something of a risk and planted all 1,000 acres, which was his farm acreage at that time, in cotton. To justify purchasing the equipment he needed to grow cotton, he had to plant all his acreage to the crop, though that’s not how he preferred to do it.

In 1999, he got Hurricane Floyd. And hurricanes and mostly mature cotton don’t mix well. So, Godley’s introduction into his second year of cotton farming got off to a rough start to say the least.

Though most of the problems he encountered growing cotton in the early years were painfully clear to him, perhaps the biggest problem — a build up of root-knot nematodes on some of his best cotton land — still challenges him today.

The nematode problems weren’t new, but different when he started growing cotton. Godley’s long-time crop consultant Bill Peele explains: “We pulled nematode samples religiously before 1999 to manage primarily cyst nematode and some occasional root knot in soybeans and corn. 

“Where growers (like Godley) moved to continuous cotton we held off with the nematode sampling after two years, because the cotton was wiping out the cyst and root knot were not presenting a problem. 

“When we saw problem areas showing up in soybeans, cotton, and corn fields we began to take a look again and realized our problem was primarily root knot. Cyst were also finding a foothold on some farms as well.   

“Now, we pull the nematode samples in problem areas during the growing season, and also along with fall soil samples for our Production Management Plan. We are using a GPS one sampling approach, so we pull samples in the same area each year and study historical changes,” Peele says.    

Even if rotation with corn and soybeans had been an option in the early days, the North Carolina grower contends it wouldn’t have made much difference, because all the rotational crop options are about as susceptible to root-knot nematodes as cotton.

In 2008, Godley began planting soybeans in part to take advantage of good market prices and in part to break his cycle of continuous cotton. “We used Temik on our cotton, and it probably masked some of the symptoms of root-knot damage, but the damage became very obvious with soybeans,” he says.

Despite the nematode problem, he grew mostly beans for a couple of years and switched back to a cotton/soybean rotation in 2010. “It became evident, he says, that regardless of which crop I chose to grow that nematodes would be a challenge.”

Determined to minimize losses

With cotton prices good, he went back to growing more cotton last year, but was determined to minimize yield loss to nematodes. He added some new tools to his arsenal.

He emphasizes that he needs all the tools he can find to fight nematodes. “I suspect we lose 5-10 percent yield just from nematodes on our cotton. In some spots with high nematode populations we lose close to 100 percent, so we just don’t need to plant those acres,” Godley says.

On some of his land that had been in soybeans for two years, Godley planted Phytogen 367WRF, which has some nematode tolerance. He says he could have planted other varieties of cotton in those fields, but only if he used a maximum rate of Temik to help manage the high nematode populations.

“Temik has been a good product, but it is a hassle to use, and it seems with it going off the market the industry has not supported its use. Without the precision application equipment we are accustomed to using on other materials, it is hard to be confident of exactly how much is going out,” Godley says.

From some test work done on his farm with seed treatments, Godley says he wasn’t convinced it would give him enough protection to plant cotton on some of his most heavily infested fields.

Likewise, he says, he tried a nematode resistant variety (Stoneville 5599) a few years back and didn’t feel that alone gave him enough protection from nematodes.

Phytogen 367 performed well in the North Carolina State University Official Variety Tests in 2009, and it had tolerance to root-knot nematodes. That was a combination the North Carolina grower needed.

Godley planted his Phytogen 367 on May 10 and picked the cotton in early October. Like many North Carolina growers, he was caught between defoliation and picking when the area was hit by Hurricane Earl that brushed the Mid-Atlantic coast and damaged a lot of cotton in eastern North Carolina.

Despite getting hit with nearly 20 inches of rain after his cotton was defoliated, his nematode tolerant cotton averaged nearly 1,400 pounds per acre. Under more normal rainfall conditions, he says the same cotton would probably have produced another 100-200 pounds per acre.

Joel Faircloth, cotton development specialist for PhytoGen in the Mid-Atlantic region, says, “growers that planted PhytoGen 367 will tell you it has exceptional early season vigor and handles early season stress well. We were also very pleased with how well it yielded relative to its competitors in drought stricken areas of North Carolina and Virginia this year.”  

“The maturity of Phytogen 367 allows producers to harvest earlier, avoiding the risks of inclement weather. In 2010, there were producers in North Carolina that harvested Phytogen 367 prior to Hurricane Earl and yielded greater than two bales per acre,” Faircloth adds

For Mike Godley the battle with nematodes goes on, and with cotton prices approaching record levels, he will be shooting for maximum yields. Planting a nematode tolerant variety is a good first step in managing nematodes, he says.

“PhytoGen 367, Temik, and new seed treatments will likely all be a part of the mixture that will help us manage nematodes and improve our cotton yield,” Godley adds.

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