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Cotton producers worry about costs

Even with rising cotton prices and new technologies on the market, Louisiana cotton producers remain worried that cotton has become too risky and too costly to manage. Who can blame them?

First there were the disastrous seasons of 2008 and 2009, when the state’s cotton crop suffered through harvest-time hurricanes and/or wet weather that reduced yield from 2007 by 43 percent and 31 percent.

Those who were able to absorb the losses aren’t looking forward much to 2010 either, pointing to the lack of a proven cotton variety and higher costs associated with managing pest-resistant technologies.

Their concerns have gotten the attention of Monsanto, which markets Bollgard II and Roundup Ready Flex. The company conducted a number of listening sessions around the Cotton Belt this winter focusing on grower concerns.

One of those concerns is the phasing out of cotton varieties containing original Bollgard, and their replacement by varieties containing Bollgard II. Growers in Louisiana who planted Bollgard II in 2009 aren’t sure the technology is worth a higher price, considering the sprays they made in Bollgard II for cotton bollworm last year. Many were expecting that the dual gene technology in Bollgard II would significantly reduce or eliminate these sprays.

Cotton producer Donovan Wiley, who farms around Jonesville, La., said the appearance of bollworms in his Bollgard II cotton in 2009 was frustrating and an added cost on top of Mother Nature-related damage. “There were a sustained number of bollworms out there, just below threshold. But they were there for longer than we could tolerate at the sub-threshold level.”

Wiley sprayed for bollworms in the cotton two times, “because we were also going after plant bugs and stink bugs. We took care of them before they caused any damage.”

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Wiley praised Bt technology in general, but asked, “Will it cut down on spray applications? I’m not sure because a lot of the issues we have now are plant bugs and stink bugs, and they are becoming tolerant to what we’re using. We’re having to make five to seven applications a year on high infestations. We’re still spending a substantial amount of money on insecticide.

“The long and the short of it is that we need some new chemistry,” Wiley said. “The organophosphates are good products and the pyrethroids are good products. But resistance is building and it carries over from year to year.”

Dave Rhylander, Deltapine brand lead for Monsanto, a veteran of most of the listening sessions conducted by the company this winter, added that Bollgard II cotton varieties “may require a spray for bollworms under certain conditions where you have excessive pressure. We know that typically you’ll have to spray Bollgard II several times less than you would with Bollgard. We think it’s a good value for farmers because you can reduce the number of sprays and you can plant 100 percent of your acres because you can use a natural refuge.”

In a talk at the 2010 Beltwide Cotton Conference in New Orleans, Roger Leonard, entomologist at the LSU AgCenter in Winnsboro, La., noted, “The registration of Bollgard decreased insecticide applications for bollworm by about 50 percent. The stacked proteins are going to decrease that by another 50 percent. We will not see an elimination of applications in the future, but we will continue to see this decrease occur.”

(See Cotton insects: step ahead of resistance)

Like many Mid-South cotton producers, Wiley is also worried about the additional expense of controlling Palmer pigweed and hemp sesbania, weeds becoming more difficult to control with glyphosate. “Officially, we have no resistance in this area, but unofficially, let me tell you, we do.”

Wiley has gone to pre-emergence herbicides, “which helps eliminate a lot of our weed pressure in mid-season. The costs depend a lot on what you put out. If you go with trifluralin, it will run you about $5.50 an acre. If you go with Solicam, it runs $12 to $15 an acre.”

Wiley noted that a Monsanto rebate program implemented to offset some of the costs of using a residual herbicide to manage glyphosate resistance in Roundup Ready crops “didn’t offer much help on the products that we need to use.”

Larry Sayes, who farms in central Louisiana, has also incurred additional costs controlling resistant weeds in cotton. Resistant weeds were first observed in 2008 and controlled in season with an application of Gramoxone and diuron applied with a hooded sprayer. After that experience, Sayes started the 2009 season making sure his weed control program included residual herbicides, which added about $25 per acre to his production costs.

“We had a few escapes here and there, but I think if we can keep hammering on them, we can control them. But you can’t just apply glyphosate alone. It’s not going to work.”

Sayes said Monsanto’s rebate program did help offset some of the cost of the residuals.

Rhylander says Monsanto understands the frustration of growers battling resistant weeds and stresses that the rebate program is a work-in-progress. “We’re really not in the herbicide business other than Roundup, so we base our incentives on what weed scientists in the various states are recommending. We’re going to be flexible. If a weed scientist recommends a product, it’s more than likely going into the program.”

Sayes says his biggest worry going into 2010 is simply not knowing what to expect without his old standby variety, DP 555 BG/RR. The variety was by far the most popular cotton variety in Louisiana in 2009, planted on 37 percent of all acres. The variety, and all cotton varieties containing original Bollgard, are being phased out, and seed will not be available for 2011.

“DP 555 BG/RR had a yield potential for us of about 1,500 pounds per acre.” Sayes said. “None of the Bollgard II varieties in my test plots have come anywhere close to 555. We feel like if we ever get a good variety, we wouldn’t mind paying for it. If it was just the extra money for Bollgard II we were concerned about, we would have paid it for 555 if they would have kept it.”

Sayes added that central Louisiana cotton production suffered through the devastating effects of hurricanes in 2008, then excessive wet weather in 2009, “which was almost as bad as a hurricane. But our 555 picked about 900 pounds and the rest of the varieties in the test plot were picking only 600 or 700 pounds.”

Chris Krahn, who farms in Jonesville, La., lauded pest-resistant technologies like Bollgard II and Roundup Ready Flex, but expressed frustration over increasing tech fees. And like Sayes, he’s concerned about a variety lineup for 2010 that is largely unproven.

“In some ways, I think that 555 may have very well played out. But at the same time, it looks like we’ve been cut short when I don’t see anything out there that will yield with it. We’re kind of grasping at straws looking for cotton varieties.”

As a result, Krahn will plant a little less cotton this year. “I’ve lost my 555, and I don’t want to put a bunch of money into something that I don’t know much about. We’re going to pick five or six varieties and try to figure out which ones are the best. That’s all I can do right now.”

Rhylander says the Deltapine lineup of new Bollgard II cotton varieties will eventually prove themselves to Louisiana growers. “We do understand that because of the weather situation the last two years, a lot of farmers haven’t really been able to evaluate these products. We think we’ve given them some good alternatives and choices of three or four products to look at on their farm. Growers will have to undergo a period of learning how to grow them. Our job is to help these farmers bridge from 555 and other products, and do it in a successful manner.”


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