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Could top 1 million: Arkansas cotton acreage up

Arkansas farmers intend to plant more than 1 million acres of cotton this year, compared to 960,000 acres in 2002.

The decision to increase the acreage is a financial consideration, said Bill Robertson, cotton specialist with the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service.

“People are looking at commodity prices for different crops and comparing. A lot of them felt like cotton was the best option.”

The specialist said some farmers are nearly through planting, and some are just getting started.

Early birds took advantage of warm days to plant in early April, Robertson said. Other farmers were reluctant to plant so early because nights were still cool.

The farmers who planted early were rolling the dice, Robertson said. In this case, “they made a good decision and came out on top. Sometimes you win planting early and sometimes you lose.

“I looked at cotton around Marianna that had been planted on April 12. It had good development considering the cooler temperatures it had experienced.”

Robertson said farmers didn't kick into high gear for planting until the last week in April. About 40 percent of the crop has been planted so far. But rain this week (May 4-11) will slow planting.

The cooler, wetter weather will extend the period of time that diseases can threaten seedlings, Robertson said. Most farmers would like sunny weather to finish planting.

Robertson said he would like to see producers finish planting cotton by the end of May. “No one in Arkansas likes to plant cotton in June.”

Robertson is hoping for another banner year like 2002. The 2002 cotton crop, valued at $332 million, was generally excellent. The statewide average yield was 861 pounds of lint an acre, second only to the record of 877 pounds in 1994.

“Last summer, Mother Nature was kind to us with favorable temperatures and rain, which helped fill out the bolls in September.”

Robertson said transgenic cotton varieties will lead the way in 2003. He noted that in 1997, 20 percent of the varieties planted in Arkansas were transgenic. This year, he estimated, more than 90 percent of the varieties planted will be transgenic.

The main varieties favored by Arkansas farmers are Bollgard and Roundup Ready or a combination of the two in a stacked gene arrangement. Bollgard provides protection against tobacco budworms and some protection against bollworms. Roundup Ready varieties have resistance against Roundup herbicide, which allows farmers to use the herbicide in cotton.

“I feel as if the gene combination has reduced the total pounds of pesticides used in cotton production,” Robertson said. “It has saved farmers money, been easier for them to use and allowed them to be more timely with other cultural practices while reducing the impact on the environment.”

Meanwhile, researchers are working on the next generation of cotton varieties. “They're at the market's front door now,” he said.

Bollgard II promises to be more effective against bollworms and armyworms than the earlier version, said Robertson. Roundup Ready Flex will allow producers to extend the window that they can make herbicide applications over the top of the crop, which will be much more convenient for the producer.

Another trait, Liberty Link, will tolerate Liberty herbicide for weed control, which will be useful for the day when weeds eventually develop resistance to Roundup.

“It's good to have alternative technologies in the system,” Robertson said.

Lamar James is an Extension communications specialist with the University of Arkansas.

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