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Much won or lost on quality swings

Cotton producers contend that yield is the most important component of their bottom line each year. But Edwin Tritt of Bells, Tenn., is one of a growing number of producers who think the value of quality is often under-appreciated.

For example, the difference for Tritt between 4,000 bales of cotton going into the loan at 50 cents and at 56 cents a pound could amount to a swing of nearly $100,000 in revenue. While the yield component can be an important offset to that figure, it is clear quality should not be taken lightly. The returns of high quality combined with high yields could be a difference maker.

Quality is so important to Tritt that in 2004 he planted a test plot of several varieties to compare their average loan value. The plot was harvested Sept. 27, before bad weather set in. “All the varieties except one had excellent loan values. The leading variety for production was DP 444 RR/BG, which also had the second highest loan average of 55.75 cents. The highest loan value was DP 449 BG/RR, which came in at 56.10.

“All of the varieties were good. Of the four Stoneville varieties in the test, the highest loan rate was 55.23 for ST 5599BG/RR. A range of 54 to 56 cents for the loan average means you have good-quality cotton.”

Although Tritt prefers a 100 percent no-till approach to cotton production, two recent events challenged the practice — heavy rains during harvest which rutted fields in 2004 and resistant horseweed (also known as marestail).

In his no-till fields, Tritt follows the cotton picker with a stalk cutter. “On some land that tends to wash a bit, we sow a little wheat as a cover crop.”

Any disk work to shape up ground or knock out resistant horseweed is done in the spring. “Everybody in Crockett County has some resistant horseweed. And pigweed seems to be showing some resistance, too.”

On no-till fields, Tritt uses a mix of Roundup and Clarity on all his cotton acres. Clarity is in the mix primarily for potential horseweed, plus, “there are a lot of weeds out there that it does a good job on.”

He applies a fertilizer blend provided by Mid-South Farmers Co-op in Alamo, Tenn., at planting or as soon as possible after planting with his fertilizer buggy. The blend includes 90 units of nitrogen, 60 units of phosphate, 90 to 120 units of potash, and micronutrients sulphur and boron.

During the past couple of years, Tritt has applied Cotoran at planting for additional control of resistant horseweed. He adds a pyrethroid to the mix for cutworms.

Last year's crop received a shot of Temik in-furrow at planting, but Tritt is considering using a seed treatment this year. “I'm probably going to use Gaucho Grande.”

He started planting May 4, 2004. Varieties on Tritt's 2,300 acres of non-irrigated cotton included ST 4892 BR, ST 5599 BR, DP 444 BG/RR, DP 451 BG/RR, FM 960 BR and ST 4793 R in his refuge. “In 2005, I'm going to plant considerable acres of ST 5599 BR, ST 5254 BR, FM 960 BR and DP 444 BG/RR.

Tritt will go with one or two over-the-top Roundup applications on Roundup Ready cotton. “Most of the time, I get by with one, then I go with Roundup under the hoods. That's usually it for weed control.”

Tritt's biggest insect problems are thrips, plant bugs and stink bugs. Products used include Trimax, Centric, Orthene, Bidrin, Baythroid and Karate.

Managing growth is different for each variety, according to Tritt. “And it varies from year to year. For example, FM 960 BR is a totally different plant from ST 5599 BR.”

Tritt's consultant is his nephew, Chad Tritt, an employee of Mid-South Farmers Co-op. Tritt's manager, James Kelley, “is a very good cotton man, who has been with me almost 12 years.”

Tritt uses either a one-step or two-step defoliation program, depending on the size of the canopy. Products used include Finish, Super Boll and Def. He aims for a once-over harvest. “Anytime you can open up a crop and pick it one time, which is what I strive to do, you're going to improve quality.”

Tritt started picking “around Sept. 25,” with one John Deere 9986 six-row cotton picker. He harvested about 30 percent of the crop before rains settled in the second week in October and kept him out of the fields for days at a time. He completed harvest Dec. 5, compared to a early November traditional wrap-up.

Despite the rain, yields came in around two bales an acre on the farm. “We made just a shade under 4,800 bales of cotton on 2,293 certified acres. That includes the good, the bad and the ugly. The crop average was probably as good as I have ever had.

Before the bad weather hit, Tritt's loan average was 56 cents plus. “Even after the rains, we rarely had cotton go under 50 cents. But I do like to plant varieties that have high quality.

For Tritt, there are plenty of good reasons for producing quality cotton.

“When cotton is cheap worldwide, you have to depend on the government loan. Two or 3 cents a pound may not sound like a lot of money, but 3 cents a pound is $15 a bale. If you make 4,000 bales of cotton and you get 3 cents a pound more for it, that's $60,000.

“It really adds up when you get into adverse weather and you start seeing those 3- or 4-cent discounts. When you go from a $60,000 plus to a $40,000 negative, that's a $100,000 swing. So for me, quality is very important.”

Marketability is another factor, especially because two-thirds of the U.S. raw cotton crop is exported today. “A few years ago we exported the poorer grades of cotton without a lot of trouble. But China, which is the largest user of cotton in the world, is demanding a much higher quality of cotton than it did 10 or 15 years ago.

“High quality is in much more demand that it was several years ago. China can get the quality from somebody else if it doesn't get it from us.”

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