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Expanding cotton’s northern range comes with opportunity and risk

And when they look at market potential for corn or grain sorghum, cotton prospects appear even better.

But pushing the envelope and expanding cotton out of its comfort zone comes with substantial risk, says Texas Extension agronomist Randy Boman, Lubbock.

Boman doesn’t discourage farmers from planting cotton. He does, however, want them to have as much information as possible before they commit to a crop that’s more demanding and less forgiving than corn or grain sorghum.

“Pushing cotton farther into the High Plains provides a two-pronged dilemma,” Boman says. “It’s farther north and it’s a higher elevation than we have in the Southern Plains. At Lubbock, we’re at 3282 feet; Amarillo is 3676. It’s cooler in the fall and later to warm up in the spring.”

Boman says the key will be accumulated heat units, which have been ample for cotton production in the Amarillo area for the past five years.

For six out of the last 10 years, heat units from May 15 through October 6 have been adequate, according to records from Bushland, which is just west of Amarillo. The range for Bushland, however, is from 1382 to 2374.

Lubbock usually accumulates 2447 heat units. Altus, Oklahoma, gets 3000.

Brent Bean, Extension agronomist at Amarillo, says cotton needs 500 heat units to get the first square. First flower requires about 850 heat units. Another 850 heat units will be required to mature the first boll. For each additional flower after the first, count on 50 heat units, Bean says.

“Every 50 heat units beyond 1700 potentially will open another boll,” Bean says.

Boman says cotton heat unit distribution is also important. “An early freeze could shut the plant down.”

Bean says farmers in the northern fringe of the Texas Cotton Belt with a one-bale per acre yield goal should assume 50,000 plants per acre (three plants per foot of row in 30-inch rows).

“Assume 1700 heat units to get the first boll and assume one boll will equal 110 pounds of lint per acre. Also assume maturity level for the three bolls above the first open boll will be 85 percent. That’s approximately one bale per acre (110 pounds times four bolls equals 440 pounds of lint per acre.).”

Bean also offers historical climate data for the Bushland area, based on records from 1939 through 2000.

Average first freeze is October 27.

The growing season will be from May 15 through October 6.

Six out of ten years show heat unit accumulation greater than 1700.

Range is 1382 to 2374 heat units.

The average number of heat units is 1781.

That may be a tight squeeze some years. “We’ve enjoyed a warming trend for the past five years,” Boman says, “but what happens if the trend reverses? Farmers can get hurt.”

A 10-year chart shows heat units in 1991, 1992, 1993 and 1995 all below 1750.

Boman says farmers who commit to cotton long-term probably have Low Energy Precision Application (LEPA) irrigation systems and are accustomed to planting (probably corn) in 30-inch rows, which could be a yield advantage with cotton.

“They’ll need to plant a short-season variety in the northern fringe,” he says. “And options will be limited. We don’t have a short-season Roundup Ready variety with real good fiber quality.”

He says Paymaster 2145RR or Deltapine 2156RR both do well in short-season environments.

“Neither is a long-staple cotton, ranging about 31 or 32. But they will make the pounds.”

He says Paymaster 2200RR or Paymaster 2326RR could provide better staple but may experience fruit retention problems. “We can’t afford any fruit shed this far north,” he says. “If you miss the crop on fruiting branches three through 12, you’ve missed it. Hereford is about as far north as farmers want to take 2200.”

Boman says All-Tex XpressRR may be another option. It is a storm-proof, short-season variety with staple near 34. Loan value may be less, however, because of potential for low mic.

“Xpress may offer potential for a short-season, long-staple variety. Availability may be limited for 2001.”

Boman says farmers interested in expanding cotton’s range need to look at more than just potential yield.

“Cotton takes commitment,” he says. “It’s a hard crop to grow, especially in heavy textured soils that may get wet and delay harvest. Delays can be devastating.”

Look at the loan values, he says. Staple length, for instance, could make a big difference in farmer income. “Short-staple cotton could result in a 7 cents per pound discount. That’s a pretty good hit and a farmer would need to make another 72 pounds per acre to offset discounts for short staple.

“Variety selection could be critical for success in a short-season climate,” he says.

Boman says most growers in the Bushland area will be out of the active Boll Weevil Eradication Zones. That means they will not have to pay an assessment, but still have to deal with the weevil. “There are boll weevils in place,” he says.

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