When the Arkansas Cotton Research and Verification Program began in 1980, farmers in that state picked an average of a little more than 800 pounds of lint per acre. Twenty-five years later, they're picking 1,350 pounds an acre.
“Some of that success can be attributed to better varieties, but a lot of it can also be attributed to successes of the program,” said Frank Groves, cotton verification coordinator for the Arkansas Extension Service.
The purpose of the much-copied Extension program is to verify that research-based recommendations can help farmers increase yields and often reduce costs. The program also helps confirm small plot research findings on a commercial scale. Groves said that's important because farmers tend to put more trust in recommendations when they're based on a commercial scale operation.
Each participating farmer must agree to follow Extension management recommendations on 50 acres. County Extension agents and specialists assist and train the farmers and monitor their fields a couple of times a week.
In the last 25 years, more than 200 farmers have fine-tuned their management skills through the program.
“But a lot more growers besides those in the program have benefited,” Groves said. “You get a multiplying effect from neighbors of participating farmers. When you eat lunch with your grower and discuss his situation, someone often overhears the conversation and leans over and joins in.
“We also have a weekly newsletter that's put on the Web. We had more than 3,000 hits on that site last year,” Groves said. Cotton specialists and consultants in other states also monitor the Web page, Groves noted.
Non-participating farmers also gain helpful information they can use on their farms through articles in local newspapers and farm publications. Agents also benefit because they work closely with and learn from specialists, and they're in the field more often, which gives them a better handle on local problems.
Groves said the Extension Service trains participants to use COTMAN, a University of Arkansas-developed software package. The management tool helps farmers chart their progress, and they can see if adjustments need to be made.
Groves said the verification program also teaches farmers how to use irrigation scheduling software that can predict when they're going to need to water their crops next.
How does the Cotton Research and Verification Program achieve higher yields than the state average while often reducing costs?
“The key to high yields is timing. This means timely applications of any input, including fertilizer, water and pesticides,” Groves said.
“The key to saving money is scouting the crop, according to university recommendations, and spending time in the field. You have to base decisions on a crop on a field-by-field basis and not make applications across the entire farm based on a situation going on in one or two fields.”
Groves said Arkansas cotton growers treated fields for plant bugs in 2004 an average of 5.5 times compared to 3.3 times in the verification program. He said the savings on those two applications is probably $18 to $20 per acre. In some years, he noted, saving $20 an acre can make a “huge difference” in a farmer's financial situation.
If every farmer had have saved $20 an acre in 2004, it would have been $20 million going back into farmers' profits, based on a 1 million-acre crop, according to Groves.
Eight farms across Arkansas will be enrolled in the program in 2005.
Lamar James is an Extension communications specialist with the University of Arkansas.