High input costs were threatening to drive cotton out of the crop mix for producer Clinton Evans, who produces dryland corn and cotton near Brownsville, Tenn. So he did what anyone who loved to grow the crop would do. He figured out a way to keep it, with some older, but reliable equipment, conventional cotton varieties and an older approach to weed control.

Several years ago, Evans was just like any other cotton producer in west Tennessee, planting the usual offerings of biotech cotton varieties. But with the price of cotton falling and cost of production rising, it had become too risky financially, especially for dryland production.

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“Everybody was telling us we needed to cut costs. But we had already cut them. There was no more room for cutting, with the input costs, fertilizer and seed costs and the technology.”

Rather than drop the crop, he started looking at unconventional ways to cut costs. His solution was, well, conventional.

“A friend of mine recommended I try conventional cotton because I like to farm the old-fashioned way. I like to work my cotton. That year, (2010) I tried 165 acres of HQ 212 CT, a short, fast-maturing variety from Seed Source Genetics. “The first year, cotton seed costs were $13 an acre. (Biotech) seed was running a little over $100 an acre with a seed treatment. That was an eye opener.”

Evans acknowledges that a smaller operation is one key to keeping cotton in the mix. Rotating 428 acres of cotton and 220 acres of corn, he’s able to complete field operations in smaller windows of opportunity and be more timely.

Weed control in conventional cotton

For weed control, Evans will put out glyphosate along with Rifle, a generic dicamba, for marestail and other weeds, about two weeks before he plants. The costs for both are about $7.70 an acre.

In the beginning, Evans was having trouble getting residual control of weeds in conventional cotton, particularly Palmer pigweed. “Our pigweed is not resistant to glyphosate, but we may have just a few spots that are resistant. For the last two years, we’ve gone back to putting tips on the Do-all and incorporating Treflan right before planting. We’ve been getting a lot better control of pigweed with that.”

Evans usually tries to plant cotton from the last week in April to the first week of May. “Last year, it was dry, and I planted around April 15. This year, we didn’t get planted until May 15. Last year, we were picking the last of September. This year, it was the middle of October.”

Conventional cotton varieties

Right behind the planter, Evans applies a broadcast rate of CottonPro and Command. In 2013, he planted his cotton acres in HQ 212 CT and UA 222, both from Seed Source Genetics. Evans said the HQ 212 CT is more of a “stovetype” cotton. In 2012, without much rain, he applied only 3 ounces of Pix to the variety. His UA 222 required about 8 ounces of Pix, yielded 200 pounds better and went into the loan at 5 cents to 6 cents higher than the HQ 212 CT. “This year, with all the rain, we put out 54 ounces on the HQ 212 CT and 70 ounces on the UA 222.”

Evans noted that UA 222 has similar genetics to UA 48, a variety developed by University of Arkansas cotton breeder Fred Bourland. “Both of the Seed Source cottons started fruiting on the 4th or 5th node, went up to the 7th node and then started fruiting on the 3rd node. We had some fruiting branches that had seven bolls on them.”

Because it rained so much during planting season, one of the handiest tools for Evans has been a rotary hoe. “I had to run it over about 140 acres this year to get cotton up. I wouldn’t farm without one.”

 At the 6-leaf to 8-leaf stage, Evans will go over the top with Staple or Envoke. “This past year, we went over it with Staple. It costs more than Envoke, but you get some residual action from Staple.

“Then we run through it with a cultivator one, maybe two times. We have cone tip nozzles over the row on our cultivator and we’ll put out our Pix and/or insecticide. Then, we’ll come over the top with Staple. In 10-14 days, we apply ET and Direx under the hoods. We’ll put out some Centric, or another insecticide, over the row with Pix. It is usually canopied by then, and stays pretty clean.”

Evans does hire out some spot chopping, noting, “You’re going to have some problems, and we work on those areas. But the weed control program is not that expensive.”

Insect control in conventional cotton

This season, Evans sprayed a pyrethroid twice for worms, “but we really didn’t have much pressure. For plant bugs in conventional cotton, we use Wrangler, which costs $2.50 an acre. We had to spray for plant bugs every 10-14 days. We never let the plant bugs get far above threshold. Because of that, we stuck all our top bolls.”

This year, because the crop was running out of season, not all those top bolls “matured to their full potential, and not all of them made it in the basket. What did get into the basket lowered our color grade from 21s to 31s.”

On the other hand, rainfall was abundant in 2013, and it was definitely cooler than 2012. Those factors contributed to solid yields for Evans, even with limited heat units. “We picked 1,104 bales on 428 acres, which is an average of 1,274 pounds. That’s a mixture of both varieties. We could have had 300 more pounds if we had had the heat units.”

In 2013, Evans went with a two-step program to defoliate his cotton, using Folex and a boll opener. He ginned his cotton at Turnpike Gin, in Brownsville.

Cotton yield and quality in conventional cotton

The UA 222 was a better-grading cotton, with a consistent staple of 36-37. Last year in the drought, the UA 222 “had the stamina to make it into the loan at 55 cents. This year, I didn’t see as big a difference on loan value compared to HQ 212 CT.  Our average loan rate was a little over 56 cents on 1,104 bales.”

While fewer acres allow Evans to be more timely in his fieldwork, it also limits his capital outlay for equipment. He keeps his eyes open for good deals, which are more common these days with Mid-South cotton acres declining. He recently purchased a 19-year old, Case 2155, 4-row, cotton picker for $10,000.

While the consensus may be that the 4-row pickers are too old and too small, “I didn’t have to spend any money on it. It didn’t need doffers, moisture pads or spindles. I changed the oil and filters.”

Without a big expense for equipment and seed costs, Evans can squeeze a profit from cotton at 80 cents. But Evans acknowledges that conventional varieties do require a specific set of circumstances in order to work. One is simply the time to work cotton.

 “In a fast-paced world, and with the dollars that have to move through a large operation, they are not going (to conventional).

“You’re going to have to want to grow cotton to get back to raising it,” Evans said. “I’m not going to chase the dollar farming. I have friends who farm who say they think the dollar is chasing them.”

So Evans keeps it simple, giving him more time to enjoy what he’s doing. “I like the challenge of going from (biotech) to conventional varieties. If I had to grow biotech cotton, there wouldn’t be a row of it on the farm. This is the only way it will work for me.”