Chances are growers attending the first Mississippi State University Extension Cotton Short Course in 1984 would have viewed much of the information presented at the 20th annual event as futuristic. Now, anything seems possible.
In 1984, when the Extension Service organized the first short course as an avenue to provide growers with timely production information in preparation for the next year, the program focused on tillage, insect management, fertility and data on the handful of available commercial cotton varieties.
The event still offers producers basic information; only, the basics have changed.
Will McCarty, MSU Extension cotton specialist, told growers, consultants, dealers and others at the Dec. 3 opening day of the 2003 short course the innovation of the industry and of farmers has opened the doors to unprecedented success.
In 1984, growers averaged 767 pounds of lint per acre. USDA projects the 2003 crop at 916 pounds of lint per acre. According to McCarty, that number could approach 930 pounds before the final counts are in.
“We've changed the way we grow cotton. We've brought in different fertility techniques, planting techniques, and we have a successful boll weevil eradication program,” he says.
In 1995, the only transgenic cotton in the state was grown in experimental seed increase plots. This year more than 97 percent of the state's cotton was in a transgenic variety and more than 90 percent of the crop is produced with some form of reduced tillage.
“We've reduced trips across fields. We've gone to 12-row equipment and six-row cotton pickers,” says McCarty. “We've replaced man power with management technology, and we continue to improve on that technology. We have herbicide-tolerant varieties, and we are going to have better ones. We have better insecticidal chemistries to handle plant bugs, aphids and other insects, and we are going to have better ones. Cotton production is going to continue to change.”
Sonny Peaster who farms with his sons Jamie and Rich in Yazoo County, Miss., has attended every one of the 20 cotton short courses. He says 20 years ago he couldn't have imagined the advances the industry would make.
“We have Bt cotton, boll weevil eradication and much better methods for insect control,” he says. Peaster and his sons grew about 4,300 acres of cotton in 2003 and averaged over 1,000 pounds of lint per acre.
“The hardest thing now is managing this much cotton,” he says. “We've had to get bigger, but it takes a lot of management.”
Peaster attended the first short course as a way to get the latest information in one place in a short amount of time.
“Over the years, I've kept coming because I'm afraid there's going to be something come out I didn't know, but that I need to know,” says Peaster. “This is a great program for cotton producers. We have one of the best Extension Services in the country.”
Ted Wallace, cotton breeder with the Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station, shared some of the preliminary results of the 2003 official university cotton variety trials. He didn't have all data from all locations processed and analyzed, but one staggering number was that several experimental varieties being evaluated in early-season trials in the Delta yielded more than 1,700 pounds of lint per acre.
Growing conditions were good for most trial locations this year allowing researchers to see some real potential in university and commercial experimental lines. Wallace says with 20 to 24 trial locations representing all cotton-growing areas of the state, Mississippi's variety trials are one of the most reliable and respected in the country.
However, just as the industry changed, so have the variety trials. The norm used to be to have a variety in a trial for at least three years before growers or industry considered the results reliable.
“This year, in the Delta trials, we had 38 entries, and 22 of those were in it for the first time. Our top-three-yielding varieties were all experimental,” Wallace says.
Wallace anticipates having the completed trial results at least for the Delta locations available before the end of the year. That information will be available from county MSU Extension offices or may be requested by e-mail from McCarty at firstname.lastname@example.org or Wallace at email@example.com.
Tempering the enthusiasm of cotton genetics capable of producing 1,700 pounds of lint per acre was McCarty's concern about the United States' ability to move and sell higher volumes of cotton.
“I am concerned about where we are headed in the cotton industry in the United States,” he says. “In the past 12 to 18 months, we've closed 125 to 150 cotton mills in the United States. We have moved the majority of our spinning and weaving and also cutting and sewing operations offshore.
“If we continue to increase our yields per acre and yield efficiency, and we continue to move our cotton business offshore and export 60 percent of our cotton we grow, what are we going to grow on those acres when we no longer need to plant it in cotton?”
The specialist says with the genetic potential the universities and seed companies are working with and the production techniques in place today, the U.S. cotton industry is in the position to move to the next level in per-acre yield.
“This is going to put more pressure on us to sell this cotton and to come up with an alternative use for cotton. I don't believe the long-term future for cotton is going to be in textiles. A lot of people in this world can grow cheap cotton to make clothes. We have to focus on a higher-tech use of cotton fiber,” he says.
“The technologies you are using to grow cotton today are not cheap. The only way we are going to continue to pay for that technology to grow cotton is to be bigger. I see cotton farmers becoming bigger but fewer in number; bigger in size but more efficient.
“We have the technology to do that. I really believe when the last bale of cotton is ginned in the United States — and I hope that will be way after my life time — it will be in the Mid-South. I think Arizona and California will convert their land to more valuable uses a lot quicker than we do. I think the Mid-South will be the last holdout in the cotton industry.”
This past year, Mississippi growers made history. A lot of people are wondering how much cotton we will plant in 2004 and I really don't know, says McCarty.
With the price of cotton last year, what it's been trading for in the past few weeks and the outstanding yields people made, the tendency will be to plant more cotton. This year Mississippi growers picked about 1.1 million acres.
“I hope that number doesn't go to 1.4 million or 1.5 million acres. I don't think we have enough good land to plant that much cotton. I really hate to see us go much over 1.2 million acres. It think that's how much acreage we have that can produce high yields and allow enough room for some rotational flexibility.
“The most successful farmers I know plant about the same percent of grains and fiber crops every year. They just rotate them, and that's a sound practice for our soils,” says the cotton specialist.
Eva Ann Dorris is an ag journalist and from Pontotoc, Miss. She can be reached at 662-419-9176 or firstname.lastname@example.org.