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`Prove me wrong about skip-row cotton'

Producer confident system counters low prices and rising costs Jimmy Hargett is so sure that skip-row cotton is an effective counterpunch to low prices and rising production costs that he's asking other cotton growers "to prove me wrong."

For the past several years, the west Tennessee farmer has been fighting the low-price battle by trying to increase yields - with few positive results. His yields, as has been the case across the Mid-South, have leveled off.

Hargett has taken his attack inside, looking for soft spots in his production budget. The challenge is to reduce inputs more than he decreases yields, thereby maximizing net returns. Skip-row is helping him win the battle.

Hargett farms around 4,000 acres of cotton on brown loam soils around Alamo, Tenn. His typical production system has been built around an 8-row 38-inch solid planter and 4-row cotton pickers.

In 1999, Hargett produced 450 acres in a system based on a 6-row picker arranged in a 30-inch, 2-1 skip-row pattern and a 12-row skip-row planter. The picker is a Case 2555 which Hargett modified.

Good results that year compelled Hargett to take a closer look at the practice. In 2000, Mississippi State University economist David Parvin assisted Hargett in an economic analysis of an 8-row, 38-inch system versus a 12-row, 30-inch, skip-row system on Hargett's farm. That same year, Hargett expanded his 2-1 skip-row to 1,100 acres.

Here's more on the two systems:

Crop production practices did not vary between the two systems. In the fall, stalks were shred and lime was custom applied. In the spring, fertilizer and Treflan were custom applied and incorporated with a hipper. At planting, the ground was worked up with a Do-al, then planted with Cotoran, Temik and a fungicide. Cotton varieties included conventional and stacked (Bt and Roundup Ready) seed. Hargett did not vary his weed control program significantly between herbicide-resistant and conventional varieties.

Bladex, MSMA and Cobra were applied for weed control in May and Roundup was applied on some Roundup Ready acreage prior to fourth true leaf. In June, he applied Fusilade and Pix. Bladex, MSMA and Cobra were spot-sprayed in July. Roundup was applied to field borders in July. Bulldog Soda was also applied during the growing season.

In May, Hargett used a boll weevil attract-and-control tube, followed by a ground application of Baythroid. In June, he applied Baythroid and Pix and repeated that application in July. In August, he made a ground application of Tracer.

Hargett's harvesting operation included a scrapping (second trip) over the field. Parvin's analysis assumed that yields would be equal in both systems at 800 pounds. Surprisingly, Hargett's skip-row cotton out-yielded his solid cotton by 5 percent in 1999 and about 10 to 15 percent in 2000. Most of the time, yields in skip-row should be 88 to 96 percent of what would be expected in solid cotton, according to Parvin.

Parvin's analysis concluded that seven input costs did not change between the two systems: scouting, $7 per acre; boll weevil control tube, $5; hauling costs, $16; ginning, $64; fertilizer, $55; Treflan, $3.63; and custom lime application, $13.07.

But "down the row" inputs were always less in the skip-row cotton. For example, operator labor was only $10.52 per acre for skip, compared to $19.60 for solid cotton. Diesel fuel was also less in skip-row ($6.20 compared to $11.35), as were repairs and maintenance ($29.13 to $44.86), growth regulators ($6.99 to $10.50), harvest aids ($9.32 to $14.93), fungicides ($8.25 to $12.40), herbicides ($22.82 to $24.05), insecticides ($20.30 to $26.70), seed ($7.92 to $9) and interest on operating capital ($17.66 to $19.94).

Total direct expenses were $350.78 for skip-row versus $432.83 for solid. Fixed expenses were $64.24 for skip-row versus $100.85 for solid. Total specified expenses were $415.02 for skip and $533.69 for solid.

A yield of 800 pounds, a 61-cent cotton price plus 1.55 pounds of seed per pound of lint at 5 cents per pound, provided $550 in gross income for both systems.

Returns for the skip-row were $134.97 per acre, compared to $16.31 per acre for solid cotton.

The reason for such large differences in cost is because skip-row systems "have fewer linear feet of row per acre than solid-planted cotton," Parvin said. "With full-skip (2x1) planting patterns, materials planting down the row are 67 percent of solid patterns. With narrow-skip, they are 77 percent of solid."

That relationship is strongly supported by Parvin's analysis of Hargett's expenses of "down the row" inputs in the previous cost breakdown. For example, the cost of growth regulators in skip-row is 65 percent of the cost of growth regulators for solid cotton, while the cost of fungicides in skip row is 66 percent of solid.

Hargett also reports savings of $8 per acre by not applying his fertilizer in the skips. "If you're on stale seedbed or no-till, you know where your rows are going to be. You can put 550 pounds of fertilizer down instead of 500 pounds and still save money."

Hargett and Parvin add that Hargett's 6-row, skip-row planting and harvesting pattern can increase efficiency even more. For example, a 4-row, solid 38-inch picker can gather five acres an hour, while Hargett's 6-row, skip-row picker nearly doubles that pace. That's the reason for reduced costs in labor, equipment and fuel in Hargett's skip-row cotton.

Another study in the Delta area of Mississippi reveals another important consideration about skip-row cotton - the price factor. "Conventional wisdom says that solid cotton is preferred at high cotton prices and skip-row is preferred at low prices," Parvin said.

In Parvin's study, in terms of net returns above total costs, solid-planted cotton is preferred at cotton prices above $1.11 per pound. Relative to net returns above direct costs, solid-planted cotton is preferred at prices above 97 cents.

Parvin stressed that at current cotton prices both systems in the second study resulted in negative profits. Growers should consider these economic factors before making a decision about skip-row.

Hargett planted his skip-row cotton across dryland and irrigated acreage and across conventional and transgenic varieties. "I don't think I've found a place where it may not pay off."

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