One of the most positive messages coming out of the recent Beltwide Cotton Conferences in San Antonio was the preliminary report on the Cotton Incorporated Natural Resource Survey that, based on responses from 1,300 U.S. cotton producers across the Cotton Belt, indicates sustainability is standard operating procedure for the vast majority of growers.

“This survey is an integral part of our sustainability strategy,” said Berrye Worsham, president and CEO, Cotton Incorporated. “We have to step up and address this issue,” he said during a press briefing at Beltwide. “We also need this information to measure where we are with sustainability.”

Worsham said Cotton Incorporated will take information gleaned from the survey to users, millers and consumers. “But we don’t want to outrun the headlights. We want information based on facts.”

Survey respondents represented 16 percent of the U.S. cotton acreage and 1.7 million acres of rotational crops. “High participation promotes strong application and robust statistical analysis,” Worsham said.

Key findings include data that refute long-held and erroneous beliefs about cotton production, said Kater Hake, vice president of agricultural research for Cotton Incorporated.

“We have a long history of misinformation about cotton and how it’s hard on the soil,” Hake said. The survey shows that soil quality has improved significantly over the past 10 years.

Growers, at a 97 percent level, indicate that soil productivity has either improved or remained stable. They also cite improvements in soil organic matter (92 percent), soil tilth or structure (89 percent), soil compaction (86 percent), and soil crusting (86 percent).

Soil salinity, where 56 percent of respondents indicated improvement, may be an area of concern.

The survey also shows a significant increase in conservation tillage from 1990 through 2004. Acreage in some form of conservation tillage practice increased from about 500,000 in 1990 to nearly 3 million in 2004, based on USDA-ARS numbers.

“We will use our data to build on USDA figures,” Hake said.

Currently, two-thirds of the U.S. cotton crop is produced with conservation tillage practices. “80 percent of this transition occurred during the last 10 years, most within the last five to six years.” Hake said. “Today’s cotton is vastly different from yesterday’s cotton.”

He said Cotton Incorporated research efforts on tillage “is paying off. The last key was herbicide-tolerant crops.”

Soil erosion is high on the list of farmers’ concerns, with only 2 percent of Southeast and Mid-South respondents indicating soil erosion is not a concern. That figure is 22 percent in the Southwest and 58 percent in the Far West. Farmers across the Cotton Belt are routinely testing soil fertility and 67 percent of respondents in the West test water for salts. The number testing water drops to 31 percent in the Southwest, 21 percent in the Mid-South and only 8 percent in the Southeast.

Hake said farmers use several effective practices to minimize soil erosion. Minimizing runoff is the top choice for Far Western growers; Southwest cotton growers prefer surface cover (75 percent) or conservation tillage (69 percent); Mid-South growers opt for drain channels (79 percent), conservation tillage (77 percent) and surface cover (66 percent); conservation tillage (84 percent) is the top choice in the Southeast, followed by surface cover (82 percent), and drain channels (61 percent).

The survey also shows that cotton is no longer grown in a monoculture. “We have a diverse rotation system,” Hake said. Rotational crops include alfalfa, soybeans, corn, grain sorghum wheat, rice, peanuts, vegetable and native vegetation.

The report also shows farmers are working to maintain wildlife and habitat. Pat O’Leary, senior director of agricultural research for Cotton Incorporated, said farmers are maintaining the natural environment through several avenues. The survey also shows farmers are concerned about herbicide-resistant weeds and are adapting practices to minimize problems “even where resistance is less of an issue.”

The report shows cotton growers are using insecticides responsibly by rotating modes of action, adhering to worker safety practices, protecting beneficial insects, following label restrictions and paying acute attention to sensitive areas.

The report shows that 75 percent of cotton farmers are using 40 percent less pesticide than they did 10 years ago. “Also, insecticides are not applied to all cotton fields,” O’Leary said. Some 44 percent of farms responding to the survey used no foliar insecticides and 29 percent of the cotton acres were not treated.

She said farmers reported increases in their bird populations and diversity over the past 10 years. Beneficial insect numbers and wildlife (deer, rabbits, beavers, etc.) also increased. “This was a significant change and shows new practices are having an impact,” O’Leary said.

Ed Barnes, director of agricultural research for Cotton Incorporated, said water will be a critical issue for farmers. “Growers understand the value of water,” he said. The survey shows that most U.S. cotton is not irrigated but that 81 percent of the farmers who do irrigate have improved systems. The top reason for upgrades was improved yield potential, followed by decreased water and energy use.

Barnes said the report indicated that farmers are using water efficiently and have changed to more efficient systems. In 1988, 78 percent used surface irrigation. That percentage has dropped to 44 percent. In the 1990s, small plot research showed production at 50 pounds of cotton per acre inch of water. That has improved to 67 pounds per acre inch across the United States. “Farmers are getting more cotton with less water,” Barnes said.

The Far West irrigates 87 percent of its cotton acreage, followed by 56 percent in the Mid-South, 41 percent in the Southwest and 21 percent in the Southeast.

The Southwest leads in LEPA (low energy precision application) systems with 64 percent of its systems.

In the Southeast, growers have 99 percent of their acreage under sprinkler systems. Drip still accounts for only a small percentage of irrigated acreage — 8 percent in both the Far West and Southwest and 1 percent in the Mid-South and none in the Southeast.

Irrigation scheduling is an area for improvement with only about 5 percent of respondents using monitoring tools to schedule irrigation. Visual assessment is by far the most widely used practice. “We have not made technology easy enough to use,” Barnes said.

Energy will be another crucial challenge for cotton farmers with estimates that peak oil production will occur in either 2016 or 2037, depending on which source you believe. “Either way, it’s not that far off,” Barnes said. “Cheap energy is not in our future and we need to look at the effect of energy use.”

He said irrigated cotton is only slightly more energy expensive than dryland production but is “substantially more yield and quality stable.”

Nitrogen, however, “doubles the energy footprint for cotton.” But, he said, researchers are getting a better handle on the energy contained in the cottonseed itself. “The seed contains two times the energy needed to grow a crop.”

Barnes said cotton’s energy footprint compares very favorably with its most important competitor, man-made fibers, which are made “from a product that will disappear in 100 years.”

Worsham said the overall goal of the survey and the information gleaned from it is to alert the public to the positive aspects of cotton.

Janet Reed, associate director of environmental research for Cotton Incorporated, said getting the word out will be a critical next step. She said information from the survey will be used for presentations to the textile trade and to retailers.

“The reduced pesticide message will be good for consumers,” she said. “We’ll use the information to promote agricultural science and show that research yields results.”

“Science-based information is a strong theme,” Hake said. “Cotton Incorporated has a reputation for science-based and objective information.”

Worsham said other partners, including the Cotton Board, the National Cotton Council and state and regional groups assisted with the survey.

“But most important were the U.S. cotton growers who participated,” he said.

e-mail: rsmith@farmpress.com