Technology Saving Cotton Growers' Dollars

Cotton growers across the Belt are adopting technology – sometimes with trepidation – but frequently with tremendous results.

Published on: May 18, 2009

By Farm Progress Cotton Editors


Cotton growers have a passel of new technology in hand or coming their way over the next year or two. They recognize it offers them some real advantages but are working to understand the best ways to make it fit their operations.

In the Carolina-Virginia region N.C. State University entomologist Jack Bacheler points out that with Bollgard II, Widestrike and Roundup Flex it isn't so much a matter of adapting to the change - when varieties with the new tech replace stocks in the farm supply stores, growers won't have much alternative.

"After this year it is pretty much all going to be two-gene products in terms of availability," Bacheler says.

Larry Pendleton farms cotton, tobacco and sometimes peanuts with Alex and Jesse Moore in Scotland Neck, North Carolina. He's using stacked Roundup Ready Flex and Bollgard II cotton. He's leaving WideStrike alone for now, not because of any bias against it but because he has a general feeling it might be best not to mix the Dow WideStrike and Monsanto Bollgard II technologies on his farm. It will be one set of varieties, one technology, to know. "The simpler the better," he says. Last year he used 100% Stoneville varieties.

"There are a lot of good varieties from different companies but Stoneville seems to work very well on my operation with my soil types," Pendleton says. Having said that, he points out he is trying a couple of Phytogen varieties this year.

Pendleton notes there is no single favorite variety in the northeast North Carolina and Virginia region as there has been in the southern part of North Carolina and in South Carolina and Georgia where Deltapine 555 BR has played such a large role. Down South there is more a mix of the new and old as many growers continue to hold on to that favorite for another year.

Pendleton has been planting cotton into a rye cover crop for the last four years. He lets the rye mature and seed out, then plants cotton into it when it is about five feet tall. "That is helping me immensely as far as conserving moisture and in weed control," he says. "The better cover I have, the fewer weed problems I have."

He also tried wheat as a cover but stands were not consistent enough for him. Some growers in his area are using triticale. He may try that as well. "I may eventually start rolling the rye but right now we are just killing it and planting into it," Pendleton says.

He's also using GPS technology in his cotton. "We're strip-tilling eight rows and then coming back and planting twelve," he explains. "We're running an RTK autosteer unit with field memory, which is really nice in a cover crop. When you're in five-foot rye row markers are pretty much useless. The autosteer helps us keep the rows straight and allows us to plant on the same swaths.

Glyphosate-resistant weeds can be a real challenge. "I went from having zero resistant weeds to having a few, to having to hire labor to pull weeds out of fields last year. All that happened in a three-year period," Pendleton says. He uses other modes of action to help him keep resistant weeds under control, notably 2-4-D about two weeks before burndown and then Reflex behind the planter.
Southeast waits for dicamba

Though quick to jump on Bollgard in 1996, Southeast cotton producers are the least interested in progressing to second-generation GMO seed varieties.

With Bollgard's label expiring Sept. 30, Southeast growers still planted more than half of 2008's cotton acreage to Delta Pine 555 BGRR, and gave only single-digits to Stoneville's ST 4554 B2RF (just under 5%), Phytogen's PHY 485WRF (3.37%), ST 4427 B2RF (2.36%) and less than 2% each to ST 5327 B2RF and PHY 370 WR.

What growers are anxious to jump on is dicamba-resistant cotton varieties, which still are in development.

University of Georgia Extension weed specialist Stanley Culpepper warns those varieties will not be the miracle for which growers who have glyphosate-resistant Palmer amaranth are praying.

"They definitely will improve our ability to control it," Culpepper says. "It's not going to be like 1997 when we could go spray Roundup and clean a field. We need to come into that new technology with as low a population of glyphosate-resistant Palmer amaranth as possible."

What growers are quickly adopting is precision agriculture applications. Alabama's Jimmy Miller even installed inexpensive GPS systems on his poultry litter spreaders. And Georgia's Mike Newberry says he finds new efficiencies with precision applications each season.

Variable Rate Technology is garnering interest in Alabama, according to an Alabama Extension paper written by multi-county agent Shannon Huber Norwood, grain crops-precision agriculture specialist Brenda Ortiz, regional agent Amy Winstead and specialist John Fulton.

"There is interest in using these type sensor systems for the application of plant growth regulators and defoliant to cotton," according to the paper. "The principle behind these applications is that higher NDVI (Normalized Difference Vegetation Index) readings reflect higher biomass; areas with higher biomass would require higher rates of both plant growth regulators and defoliants."

Some Mid-South farmers are looking at employing tried-and-true technology in new ways. Newellton, La., diversified producer Jay Hardwick first started using a portable weather station after a drift issue arose. Today, he's using it to keep track of DD60s as well as plan farm work based on the weather.
The National Cotton Council chairman says the weather station helps him keep track of rainfall throughout the season as well.

Save with tech

Texas cotton growers are making good use of technology to save dollars in today's tight economy.

Erick Richards, a Jones County, Texas cotton farmer, says he will go with stacked gene cotton with Roundup Ready Flex to allow glyphosate use for weed control through the growing season, plus the Bacillus thurigiensis or Bollgard trait for worms.

With that Bt worm control and the technology of pheromone traps in the Boll Weevil Eradication Program, that pretty well keeps his major cotton insects in check on the Rolling Plains.

But high-tech equipment will mean just as much to Richards with his 2009 cotton crop, like using the Global Positioning System satellite technology on his John Deere tractor. "The GPS on my tractor - with spray control—ranks up there with Roundup Ready Flex and Bollgard technology for me," Richards says. "John Deere calls that GPS technology for spraying its Swather control system, and it is highly precise. GPS control makes it both easier and more efficient to spray. We've already saved enough dollars that it has paid for itself."

Beyond saving money in spraying for weeds, additional efficiency comes with his precision cotton planting using a JD Max-Emerge 1710 vacuum planter. "It does an extremely good job," he notes. "The cotton planters and planting equipment just keeps getting better and better—far more precise—and that's saving expensive seed." Finally, using coulters, Richards is able to put down fertilizer at the same time the cotton is planted to save an extra trip across the field. That saves more dollars.

Richards and his father Darrell operate Richards Farms, Inc., at Ericksdahl, Texas, and plan to put 50% of their acreage in cotton for 2009, with the other half rotated with a balance of wheat and sesame.

Jon Whatley, a cotton producer at Odem, Texas, also strives to use precision farming practices to improve yields and achieve greater returns. He grows cotton in South Texas in two counties. Whatley places fertilizer for cotton at pre-plant precisely 4 inches from where the cotton row will emerge.
That is saving fertilizer, while still supplying nutrients. He plans to continue increasing cutting edge technologies at an economical pace, and he also likes to modify the latest technologies to fit his farming.

A graduate of Texas A&M University, Whatley is a National Cotton Council of America producer delegate, a director of the South Texas Cotton and Grain Association, and vice chairman of Texas Cotton Producers. Whatley also serves on the board of two cooperatives in his region, where he has farmed with his father for 15 years.

California growers and the Pima payoff

California cotton growers have seen the handwriting on the wall and have switched like other growers to high value crops, in this case Pima cotton. While projected acreage of upland cotton is expected to be down more than 55%, the extra long staple Pima will be down only 23% and current economic conditions are likely to speed the change in 2009 to planting extra long staple cottons.

This technology change is no accident. Independent University of California testing of new Pima cotton varieties is an essential part of improving the quality and productivity of lint produced by San Joaquin Valley growers. The most popular Pima cotton varieties are evaluated in large-scale field trials alongside the newest varieties approved for widespread planting by the San Joaquin Valley Cotton Board. These scientific evaluations are conducted annually on grower fields and two UC Research and Extension Centers. All the major regions of the San Joaquin Valley are represented, allowing the varieties to be assessed over a range of climates, soils and management conditions. The yield and quality results are tabulated, summarized and distributed each winter, allowing growers to make decisions on new season planting acreage based on quality, price, and their own objectives. Evaluation data is posted in the California Cotton Review newsletter and on the Agricultural and Natural Resources cotton workgroup Web site: cottoninfo.ucdavis.edu.  

California cotton growers adopt improved varieties at a rapid pace and San Joaquin Valley cotton growers produced 200,000 bales in 1995 at a time when two varieties made up over 80% of Pima production. With the assistance of private industry breeding programs and a reliable University of California Cooperative Extension testing program, three to four varieties now dominate annual plantings - a key element in the long-term annual yield increase of 30 pounds of lint per acre.

UC Pima cotton trials are now being used by the industry as a primary source of independent grower information. Growers are making varietal selection decisions based on which variety is best suited to the farm's climate, soils and marketing goals. This up-to-date variety information has allowed California Pima growers to produce a record 683,000 bales with an average 1,532 pounds of lint per acre in the 2004 crop year, a yield unsurpassed by any large-scale plantings worldwide. More than 95% of the Pima cotton crop is purchased by overseas mills, contributing approximately $450 million to the state's economy and improving the U.S. trade balance.

- Farm Progress cotton state editors J.T. Smith, Pam Golden, Cecil Yancy, Len Richardson and Richard Davis contributed to this report.