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Technology continues to boost efficiency in cotton

Randy Norton in tractor cab
New technology in tractors today includes an auto throttle feature to automatically adjust the throttle level based on field conditions which saves fuel, says Randy Norton of the University of Arizona.
Cotton producers need to turn even more to technology to yield more efficiency and profitability.

U.S. cotton growers always hope that higher production input costs are countered by improved fiber prices but that’s not been the case in recent years. This means producers even more turn to technology to yield more efficiency to better manage their margins to achieve profitability.

Randy Norton is no stranger to cotton technology and production inputs as the University of Arizona’s statewide cotton specialist. He grew up on a Duncan, Ariz. cotton and wheat farm. He has 38 cotton projects this year in the Grand Canyon State (mostly varietal trials) designed to evaluate inputs, reduce costs, protect the crop, and increase yields.

Norton discusses ongoing technology advances in cotton and how these generate value to the grower.

Equipment efficiency

Cotton growers are well aware that equipment is a major expense on their operations, including the infamous cotton picker. Today’s price tag for a new round bale picker or a square bale module picker is in the $750,000 ballpark; enough to create serious sticker shock and glazed-over eyes.

“With new pickers, you need just one or two people and one machine to harvest the crop,” Norton said. “This allows the grower to accomplish multiple tasks in a single pass. It’s a tremendous cost savings for growers,” Norton said.

Savings can vary by region. 

Norton says current picker technology is reshaping the cotton industry with major efficiencies built in. The latest pickers eliminate the need for multiple buggies and module builders to service one older standard picker and its fiber load, and the employees to operate it. New systems allow growers to focus their employees on more important and timely tasks.

Another benefit of ‘all-in-one’ pickers is the operational speed. Older pickers traveled down cotton rows at a snail’s pace from 2 to 2.5 miles per hour (mph). Today’s pickers about double this with a 5 to 5.5 mph picking speed, covering more ground in less time which saves the grower money.

New picker benefits and other technology are changing the harvest landscape in Arizona and across other cotton-growing areas. With higher picker costs, more producers are shifting to custom harvested cotton. In southeastern Arizona’s Cochise County, Norton says about 75 percent of the cotton is now custom harvested.

Norton is the director of the UA’s Safford Agricultural Center (SAC) at Safford in Graham County.

Crop protection

For years, Arizona cotton growers faced multiple pests and diseases, including the pink bollworm. Thanks to sterilization technology and other techniques the “pinky” is getting closer to official eradication status in the state.

In fact, pesticide sprays for cotton pests in general has substantially fallen over the last several decades due to technology. Arizona cotton farmers used to spray an average of 15-plus times per season to control a handful of different pests. Today, the average is less than two sprays per season.

Norton recently talked with a pest control advisor near Coolidge (Pinal County) who said this year was the first time in 20 years that he had one field that was never sprayed for an insect pest all season long. Norton added, “This is happening in more places.”

He added, “Today’s transgenic cottonseed technologies combined with specific targeted insecticides have really made insect control much more efficient today. We are benefitting from the natural predators in the field.”

Root knot nematodes

Norton’s cotton field trials have included work on the soil-based root knot nematode pest – found mostly in sandier soils in Arizona. Nematodes create galls on plant roots which reduce the supply of vital water and nutrients to the cotton plant which in turn reduces lint yield and can kill the plant.

For several years, Norton has studied ways to reduce nematode damage to plants. He’s had good success with the fungicide Telone II using various delivery methods. The product controlled nematodes up to 100 percent.

Looking for a safer product, Norton this year conducted five large plot nematode trials using the fungicide Velum Total with its active ingredient fluopyram which has nemacidal properties.

“The early results are encouraging. In some locations the nematode populations were zeroed out. All five locations had a significant reduction in nematodes.”

Water use

Advances in irrigation continue to improve water use efficiency in irrigated Arizona cotton. Norton estimates consumptive water use in cotton is about 40-45 inches per acre. With lower irrigation efficiencies it may take up to 60-65 inches to meet the demand and also manage higher salinity levels in the soil.

Thankfully, the cotton plant is a fairly salt tolerant crop so soil salinity can often be effectively managed.

“If you look at the classical definition of salt tolerance cotton can withstand electrical conductivity in the soil up to 7-8 decisiemens per meter before you see yield decline. It’s a very salt tolerance crop,” Norton said.

Different growing stages of the cotton plant are more sensitive to salt, including seedlings. To combat salt, many Arizona growers use alternate furrow irrigation to push salt across the seed row. In Buckeye located west of Phoenix, cotton is planted dry and then irrigated up every other row to push the salt line across the seed row.

Norton says most Arizona cotton fields use a furrow-flood type irrigation system with more than 50 percent water efficiency, and reused tail water on another field. The maximum efficiency for this irrigation system is about 70 percent. In sprinkler and drip systems, water use efficiency tops out at about 80-90 percent efficiency.

In the Coolidge area of Pinal County, many growers are flooding cotton on the flat without furrows. They can flash water more quickly on the field to gain higher water use efficiency.


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