New varieties and weevil eradication behind turn around It was a few short years ago when cotton began losing favor with some growers who believed competing crops like soybeans and corn offered them a higher potential profit margin with less financial risk. In fact, according to the National Cotton Council's annual early-season planting intentions survey released Jan. 30, 1998, growers that year made plans to reduce cotton acreage to 11.86 million acres nationwide, a decrease of more than 12 percent over the previous year.

In a scene that played out across the Delta, a number of traditional cotton farmers parked their cotton pickers under tractor sheds, invested in corn headers and looked forward to an early harvest season.

One Delta family farm was among those ready to give up on cotton. After farming cotton continuously for more than 20 years on land in Louisiana's Richland and Morehouse parishes, Cater Farms severely cut back cotton acreage in 1998, switching the focus instead to corn.

Now, three crop years later, the Caters are once again hanging their hopes on cotton, and they're not alone. "Cotton's the crop to grow now," says Gary Cater, who farms both independently and with his parents, David and Louise Cater. "Our herbicide costs are lower and we have fewer insect worries now with the boll weevil eradication program, Roundup Ready cotton and Bt cotton."

After documenting a reduction in production costs on their stacked gene cotton acreage in 2000, the Caters say they are planning to plant stacked gene Bt and Roundup Ready cotton varieties almost wall-to-wall in 2001.

According to Louise Cater, their pesticide program in 2000 consisted of two applications of the herbicide Roundup and two insecticide treatments for the control of aphids and spider mites. This reduced need for insecticides and herbicides with stacked gene transgenic cotton varieties, she says, has netted substantial cost savings for the Cater farm.

That's not to say the Caters are completely eliminating corn from their cropping system. The farming family's interest in corn began in 1993, when they introduced a corn rotation into their production system to improve soil organic matter and reduce the severity of reniform nematode infestations in their cotton crops.

Then, in 1998, plummeting cotton prices and the agronomic benefits they discovered corn could provide convinced them to put more of their acreage into corn instead of cotton.

With a two-year rotation of corn, followed by one year of cotton, the Caters saw a drastic reduction in the reniform nematode populations that had been limiting their cotton yields. The switch to corn also greatly improved the level of soil organic matter in what had been continuous cotton fields and reduced their per-acre production costs.

While the Caters were faced with adding a corn header and two larger grain trucks to handle their corn acreage, they balanced the expense by increasing their custom harvesting workload. Betting that the cotton market would eventually turn around, though, they didn't get rid of any cotton harvesting equipment.

They have since eliminated custom work from their farm business due to the rising costs of fuel, equipment maintenance and repairs, and the expense and scarcity of qualified labor. Reducing their need for extra harvesting equipment has allowed the Caters to whittle their fall equipment list down from multiple combines and cotton pickers to the one combine they own and one cotton picker they lease during harvest. "We're through harvesting our corn and soybeans with the combine before cotton harvest begins. That way we don't need to hire any of the full-time employees we previously needed. It cuts down a lot on our harvest expenses," says David Cater.

Farm machinery isn't the only area the Caters have found to cut production costs. We've cut just about everything we can cut," says David Cater. "Now, we're increasing our stacked gene cotton acreage so we can further reduce our chemical and labor costs."

What was a crop rotation mix of two years of corn, followed by cotton and soybeans, will now be two years of cotton followed by one year of corn. "We're going to rotate corn into our production system, but not nearly as often as we were doing. And, with the price of soybeans where it is, we've knocked soybeans out of our rotation, " says Gary Cater.

Thanks to the boll weevil eradication program and Bt cotton, Cater says, they can afford to put some of the cost savings they have reaped into inputs like fertilizer. "We've been applying 80 units of nitrogen per acre to our cotton each year. In 2001, we're going to increase that to 140 units of nitrogen per acre, split-applied at preplant and at sidedress," he says.

The Caters say they'd also like to do a better job of timing their irrigation sets in 2001.

"In the fields that usually took about a half-day to get water down the middles, it took us 24 hours or longer to irrigate in 2000," says Louise Cater. "We've been irrigating for 25 years and last year was the worst year I've ever seen for irrigating."