While new crop surveys indicate Mid-South cotton acres will drop again this season, just how much probably won’t be known until planting time, according to a number of Mid-South producers interviewed at the Mid-South Farm and Gin Show.

So far, the new year has brought increased concern among growers as questions swirl about the new farm bill and as soybean and corn prices continue to fall.

Bill Walker

“I can tell you in a month,” said Bill Walker, when asked how much cotton acreage he’ll farm in 2009. “But we’re probably going to back up a little bit,” said Walker, who farms with his brother Bill near Somerville, Tenn.

Walker says the farm’s 2008 cotton acres were off a third from 2006 acres.

“The biggest reasons for shifting back to more cotton include rising input costs on everything else and where these grain markets are headed. We have cotton equipment sitting there, and it’s hard to make a payment on them growing corn at the price it’s at right now.”

The producers grew “an above average crop” in 2008 after a disappointing year in 2007 “that raked us over the coals. In 2008, we had water at the right time and the weather cooled off in August.”

The Walkers have started putting in center pivot irrigation on their west Tennessee farm. Odd-shaped and small fields make that a challenge, but the need to alleviate some of the risk of growing dryland cotton is making the Walkers more creative. “We’re starting to do a little more clearing and filling in. Yes, we’ll eventually run out of places we can go with center pivots, but we have a good many places where we can make it work.”

Hollie Henderson

Hollie Henderson, who farms cotton, rice, soybeans and corn near Altheimer, Ark., decreased his cotton acreage by half in 2008 “and we may cut it out this year. We’re also probably going to cut back some on our corn, keep our rice at about the same and plant more soybeans.”

On the other hand, “cotton prices may look good in a month,” Henderson said. “We’re cotton farmers. We have the equipment. We want to use it, but we’re waiting to see what happens.”

Chad Russell

Chad Russell, who produces 4,800 acres of cotton and soybeans with his father Jimmy and brother Kurt Russell, near Marianna, Ark., says cotton acres have declined about 10 percent per year from 2006 to 2008, “and this year, it’s probably going to go back up about 10 percent.”

Russell says a big reason is the recent drop in soybean prices. “Once the beans go below $9, the crop mix starts to favor cotton, with the yields we can get and our set up. “But I like growing cotton. Today, the economics on my farm are better for cotton. Everything on our operation is set up for cotton.”

Steve Stevens

Tillar, Ark., cotton farmer Steve Stevens says cotton acres “are going to be about the same as last year. With corn prices going down, cotton is going to take up some of that slack. At least we’re setting some bottoms on cotton. We know where we’re at, and cotton doesn’t require as much fertilizer.”

Stevens “has been consumed” for the last few months, trying to get information to help him make a decision on how to organize his operation for 2009. “We’re reorganizing into a husband and wife partnership. My daughter and her husband are doing the same.”

The upcoming season has Stevens worried about a number of things. “We’ve had years before where it would look bad, nothing would cash flow at the beginning of the year, but it turned out well. But costs are so much higher now. It’s just scary.”

The biggest costs concerns are fertilizer prices, seed and technology costs and equipment and equipment.

“Fuel costs will be down substantially from last year and that’s a big plus.

Reviewing 2008 crop

Last season, 2008-09 upland cotton production was lower in three of the four Cotton Belt regions. The exception was the Southeast, where the upland crop approached 3.4 million bales. Despite the lowest area in 15 years, favorable growing conditions in the Southeast resulted in a record yield of 853 pounds per harvested acre and pushed the crop slightly above a year ago. Consequently, the Southeast crop accounted for nearly 27 percent of the U.S. cotton output in 2008-09, the highest since 2001-02.

In contrast, the Southwest and Delta regions each experienced significant declines in upland production in 2008-09. The Southwest crop is estimated at 4.9 million bales, nearly 3.7 million below 2007-08 and the lowest in 5 years. The decline resulted from a reduction in both harvested area and yield. Despite planted area above that of 2007, abandoned acreage of 1.6 million acres reduced harvested area to about 3.6 million acres. In addition, the regional yield was a below-average 656 pounds per harvested acre in 2008-09.

Likewise, the Delta crop is estimated at nearly 3.5 million bales, about 1.8 million below 2007-08 and the lowest since 1986-87. Delta production contributed only 28 percent of the U.S. cotton crop in 2008-09, the lowest since 1983-84. Yields in the Delta region have been relatively stable over the past several seasons, averaging slightly above 2008-09’s yield of 930 pounds per harvested acre.

In the West region, upland area declined for the fourth consecutive season to 292,000 acres — the region’s lowest since 1923-24 — as upland area there continues to follow the downward trend experienced since the early 1980s. However, an above average yield of 1,420 pounds per harvested acre kept upland production in the West from falling further in 2008-09. The upland crop in the West totaled only 840,000 bales.

e-mail: erobinson@farmpress.com