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Low prices challenge skip-row cotton

It's tough to pencil in a profit on 40-cent cotton, even with the reduced input benefits of skip-row planting, says west Tennessee cotton producer Shelton Wilder.

Wilder, who farms 4,000 acres at Longtown, Tenn., went to a skip-row configuration over 15 years ago because the numbers worked with farm policy of the time.

“The government allowed you to use the skip for what they called conserving use, a kind of a set-aside. The skip had to be at least 26 inches (64-inches when added to the row spacing) to qualify.”

At that time, skip-row essentially allowed farmers to spread their base over more acres. When farm policy changed, so did that particular benefit of skip-row. But for Wilder, the numbers for skip-row still worked because he could reduce inputs without a corresponding yield loss.

Wilder goes with a slightly different look than the typical 2-1 skip. “It's a modified spacing, four solid rows under the tractor and two sets of skips (-xx-xxxx-xx-),” said Wilder.

The producer hasn't gone to a pure 2-1 skip “because the wheels on a tractor can't be stretched out wide enough to put a skip under it with an 8-row, skip-row planter. With the wider planters you can. But that's the way we started many years ago, and it would cost too much to change now.”

One key to the farming operation's success is its tight budget. “The family doesn't like to spend money,” Wilder said. “It is completely self-financed, and it probably will be as long as we want to farm. My daddy (John Wilder) is a successful lawyer and the lieutenant governor of Tennessee, and he drives a 1989 Pontiac that has about three different tones of paint.”

Skip-row fits their frugal approach to farming. “We save a pretty good amount of input costs with skip-row — over $100,000 on our operation,” Wilder said. “And we're working land that is not good cotton land.”

The biggest savings are in seed and fertilizer, noted Wilder. “On a 100-acre field of skip-row, we have 20 acres that don't have any seed on it. And on that same field, we would apply enough fertilizer for 80 acres.”

Wilder uses four, four-row pickers configured with a skip in the middle (xx-xx) to harvest the configuration. The wider swath increases efficiency without additional costs. “You can make a five-row picker out of a four-row picker without having to buy a header and perform maintenance on an extra header.”

Most importantly, skip-row yields are comparable to yields in solid cotton, according to Wilder.

To prove it, Wilder occasionally will pick solid rows in the configuration and keep it separate from the skips. The comparison showed “on a four- to five-year average, we are picking as many bales off a 100-acre field as we would have if we had planted it solid.

“We don't have deep topsoils,” said Wilder, when asked to explain the yield results. “I've always thought of topsoil as just a sponge to hold water and nutrients. If you have 4 to 5 inches of topsoil, that's all you have. But you can make the flower pot wider.

“When you have a skip, you also have the benefit of sunlight shining all the way down into the stalk. We think that makes more yield.”

Wilder sees two downsides to skip-row cotton — higher boll weevil eradication fees and higher defoliation costs.

“When you're raising 40-cent cotton, it's hard to pay a $37 boll-weevil-eradication fee. In our case, because of skip-row, it's costing me $46 an acre. That's the other side of the story on skip-row cotton.”

“But I'm a firm believer that boll weevil eradication has been a plus from day one. The top part of our stalk has fluffy mature bolls that would not have been there without boll weevil eradication.”

After harvest, Wilder will cut stalks, then seed wheat at 1 to 1.25 bushels on his hill ground. During the winter months, he'll bed up his ground with an Orthman bedder. “We can do it in one pass. The rig has a middle buster with a rolling wing on it.”

Sometimes, an early burndown is required before planting. At planting, the ground is burned down and planted. Seed treated with Gaucho, Baytex and Quadris will protect against thrips and an array of seedling disease common to west Tennessee soils, including rhizoctonia, pythium and thielaviopsis.

Wilder will not put down a residual herbicide at planting, going with all Roundup Ready varieties. Two applications of Roundup are made early and usually that's it until layby, where an application of Karmex is applied in the skips.

“We have spots where we have to come in with a directed spray or a hooded sprayer.”

Wilder went to a Roundup program (without residuals) several years ago, on a dare. “We had two fields here close to the gin that we were spreading gin trash on. You have a terrible weed problem when you do that. My consultant challenged me to put the field in Roundup Ready cotton.

“On one field, I put everything (residuals) down and used Roundup, too. On the other field, I didn't use anything but Roundup. We controlled the weeds with just the Roundup only. It was amazing. Since then, we've been 100 percent Roundup.”

Environmental conditions have been nearly perfect for making timely application of Roundup, Wilder stressed. “We're able to get in there when we want to. But we can run our big Hi-Boy in wet conditions anyway.”

Last year, most of Wilder's cotton was Paymaster PM 1218 BR, which was hit with discounts for micronaire and staple. “I'd say the average loan price that we ginned last year was 46 cents, that's 6 cents under the loan.”

The dockage concerned Wilder enough that this year he'll plant about 40 percent of his cotton in PM 1218BR, with the remainder in Stoneville stacked-gene varieties.

Wilder and the five other partners in the farming operation have done everything humanly possible to keep cotton on Longtown Farm. But if cotton prices don't start looking better this year, a 115-year tradition could end.

“I'm a numbers person,” Wilder said. “When a number doesn't work, there's no reason to ride something until it dies. Just admit it doesn't work. Don't sit there and bleed to death.”

What's more important to Wilder, however, is the loss of an inheriting generation. At one time, he had hoped to retire and begin renting his cotton ground to some younger farmers under his wing. “But all my young folks are gone. I've lost every one of them.”

Those young farmers are more than just numbers to Wilder. “They are our seedling crop. It doesn't matter about those of us who have been here a lifetime. We're going to retire in five to 10 years anyway. But when we're the only ones that can survive, that's a pitiful situation.”

Commodity prices could turn things around quickly, Wilder says. “But when you get down to 40-cent cotton, you can't do much. Fact is, we can't raise 40-cent cotton.”


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