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Producer hedging bets with cotton

Jack farms soybeans, cotton, corn and rice in Belzoni, Miss. Like many of his neighbors, Jack plants Bt/Roundup Ready cotton varieties to simplify weed control and to avoid a tobacco budworm train wreck. But he plants just as much acreage in conventional cotton varieties.

Is that much conventional cotton too risky? Too much work? Not really. Jack simply doesn’t want to sell all his risk to seed companies that market pesticide-resistant seed.

There’s no doubt that Bt cotton is helping Jack and other cotton producers in the area control annual problems with worm pests, especially any flare-ups that might be caused by an active boll weevil eradication program. “We plant Bt cotton, “for the horrendous problem we don’t want to have with resistant tobacco budworm,” Jack stresses.

But his affinity for conventional varieties takes a little more explaining. “When we have a lot of Bt cotton out there (on surrounding farms) we haven’t had the budworm problems,” Jack says. “And there are some other products, like Tracer and Steward on the market that give us good control in conventional cotton.”

Going with half conventional/half Bt cotton is also a good hedge for a farmer who is constantly assessing his risks. “If you have a heavy budworm year and you’re half Bt, you’re half saved from having to spend a fortune on the crop. But if you have a light year, then the conventional cotton is a little cheaper and you save a little money. We’re not putting all our eggs in one basket.”

Jack also credits his consultant, James Simpson, who has worked for Jack since 1988. “I was teasing him the other day. I told him, ‘You’ve never spent all my money; you always leave me a little bit. And you’ve never lost a crop.

“Maybe that’s another reason why I grow some Bt and some conventional. He has managed my conventional very well over the years. You have to give a lot of credit to the people who help you.”

Up to now, seed companies have supplied Jack with some high-yielding conventional cotton varieties, “which have been very good to us. I’ve always been a variety person. I spend a lot of time worrying salesmen, other farmers and Extension people to death about varieties.”

That curiosity led to his discovery of a conventional variety, PhytoGen 355, which will go on a large part of Jack’s conventional cotton ground this year. “It was a Bob Bridge (cotton breeder) cotton. He developed it before he left the experiment station at Stoneville. There’s a lot of data behind it.”

A few years ago, Jack planted a few bags of the variety and, by the end of the season, it looked very promising. “The salesman for PhytoGen brought the plant breeder down to look at it. The first thing the plant breeder said was, ‘please tell me this is the field,’ I said it was and he said, ‘it looks so good.’

“The plant breeder and the farmer all have the same idea of what they want the field to look like,” Jack said. “So many times, the environment, fertility, insects, disease and all those interactions play a part. It’s not always the variety. As a producer, I try to figure out what I did right, how we managed it, what mistakes we made.

“There’s a lot of other good conventional varieties out there, too,” noted Jack. “Sure Grow 747 is a good one and the FiberMax varieties have some excellent fiber qualities and yield.”

Jack went with a 50/50 ratio of Bt to conventional cotton even in the early days of boll weevil eradication, when weevil sprays were often blamed for damaging flare-ups of worm pests. “I guess I was just too hard-headed,” he explained.

How did it do in those early days? “Not terrible,” says Jack. “One year, there was an insurance policy that would pay you after you spent so much money on Heliothis control. I collected some. It was a risk management decision. The insurance was cheaper than going with the Bt. Of course, we still had some Bt cotton.”

Jack’s comfort level with conventional cotton continues to rise with each year of boll weevil eradication. “We’re getting far enough along now where we’re not spraying much for weevils.”

The cotton producer wants to continue to experiment with his percentage of Bt cotton after the weevil is eradicated. The big question is whether he’ll have an adequate selection of conventional varieties to choose from. He isn’t hopeful.

“I can see the day when we’ll have 96/4 (the highest percentage of Bt to conventional cotton allowed by EPA). That’s where the money is for the seed companies. The more money the company can put in the seed, the more profit they can make.”

On the other hand, Jack doesn’t see anything onerous about the potential trend. “I would do the same if I was them. If you have one seed variety that you’re going to make a 5 percent return on and another where you’re going to make 20 percent, you want to spend your money on the higher return varieties.”

Seed companies have a different opinion, however. Steve Hawkins, president and chief operating officer of Delta and Pine Land Co., says the company’s policy is to let cotton producers dictate market direction and that transgenics is what they want.

He noted that returned seed, (sent back to the company from distributors and growers) was over 40 percent for conventional cotton varieties in 2000 and fewer than 20 percent for transgenic varieties.

But was that because producers preferred transgenic releases or were the conventional varieties simply poor choices. That debate is just getting started.

Bud Hughes, president of Stoneville Pedigreed Seed Co., says company breeders develop conventional varieties first, and then place transgenic traits in them within a year. “We keep the conventional as an option, but growers vote with their dollars.”

According to Hughes, Jack and other cotton producers who maintain a high interest in conventional varietal development are in the minority. “Last year, we released one of the best conventional varieties we’ve ever had, ST580, but we won’t sell enough for 50,000 acres,” Hughes said.

One avenue still open for cotton producers interested in conventional varieties are public breeding stations, notes Jack. “If plant breeders at Mississippi State develop high-yielding, high quality conventionals and insecticide costs aren’t much higher than the Bt technology fee, then maybe there’ll be a place for conventional. Competition is always better.”

He pointed to Miscot cotton varieties developed by MSU cotton breeder Ted Wallace as a good example of what public breeding programs can do for growers. One of two pending Miscot varieties ranked number one in state variety yield trials over 1999-2000.

Several private companies are considering marketing the Miscot varieties, according to Wallace. Any one of those companies could choose to genetically enhance the cultivars. But Wallace said that any agreement, “would allow for a minimum amount of the conventional version to be available.”

Another alternative is for public breeding stations to sell foundation cottonseed to companies willing to market them as conventional varieties. “That would be a possibility if we had a private acid-delinting facility in the area,” Wallace said. “That’s a big roadblock.”

“There’s no doubt that the Roundup Ready/Bt system is the simplest system,” Jack said. “It’s a lower management system. If you have relatively clean fields and enough equipment, conventional works fine.

“I would love nothing better than to plant Roundup Ready/Bt cotton, have it work great and not spend much money,” Jack added. “No risk, no worry, no costs. But there’s always a cost. When someone takes a risk away from you, he wants to be paid for that.”

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