Cotton prices are hovering around the loan rate and cost of production is going up like a skyrocket. Yet Gregg Garner remains bullish on farming cotton in Craighead County, Ark.
There are good reasons for Garner's confidence, including access to adequate water and good cotton land which keeps the county in the top tier of cotton production in the state each year.
“Cotton producers in our area can compete with anybody in the United States,” said the Lake City producer, who farms cotton, rice and soybeans with his father, Billy, and son, Aaron.
“From production and cost of production standpoints, when you look at the cold, hard figures, I don't think anybody can grow an acre of cotton any cheaper than we can in northeast Arkansas and southeast Missouri. So if there is cotton in the United States, we're going to have cotton here.”
Garner's business-like approach is to push for high yields, watch costs closely and make timely applications. Ninety-five percent of his cotton is irrigated, mostly furrow, supplemented by three center pivots.
After Garner cuts stalks in the fall, he has three tillage options, “maxi-till, minimum-till and no-till. The type of tillage depends on the field conditions when we're through harvesting. We grow a lot of cotton behind rice and, needless to say, that's part of the maxi-till operation. On cotton, if our rows are decent, and the field is not rutted, then we'll go with no-till. If it's an in-between situation, we'll re-hip or run a ridge-till cultivator.”
Garner will put out a mixed fertilizer, preplant, usually 10-30-100, with sulfur and boron, and apply lime where needed. He will burn down at the end of March with Roundup and Clarity. “We try to hold off as long as we can, which seems to work better than going out early.”
Clarity is used for control of resistant horseweed, which has infested a large percentage of northeast Arkansas cotton fields this year. If the producer can't keep the weed under control, “we may have to go back to some old-fashioned farming. We do have a 40-acre test plot of Liberty Link cotton that we're looking at.”
Garner starts planting around April 25. Varieties include ST 5599 BR on some of his sandy ground “because it seems to help on nematodes. This year, we planted a good bit of DP 444 BG/RR on our heavier ground for its earliness. We also planted ST 5242 BR, ST 4575 BR and in the refuge, DP 432 RR.”
He'll apply Temik in-furrow for thrips and nematodes, and an insecticide behind the planter for cutworms. His soil type has good internal drainage which seems to minimize disease pressure, so Garner doesn't use a fungicide.
“Sometimes we may have to replant, but it boils down to economics. I don't feel like the fungicide is worth the cost. Usually, if you have to replant, you have to replant no matter what you do.”
Typically, Garner will go with two over-the-top Roundup applications, weather permitting. On one, “we usually add something to help on thrips. It's been a good practice to add Bidrin or something for additional control.”
The applications are made with a John Deere 4720 Hi-Cycle sprayer, equipped with variable-row selection and parallel tracking. The latter, which is also used on Garner's field tractors, has reduced driver fatigue and chemical oversprays.
“If you have a 32-foot cultivator and the driver overlaps 5 feet, you're losing roughly 15 percent of your productivity. With this technology, you gain back that productivity by not having those overlaps.”
The over-the-top applications are typically followed by a couple of trips with Roundup under the hoods followed by a lay-by application of Roundup only. We haven't had to use a residual the last three or four years because the cotton has been big enough.”
He'll put out 4 or 5 ounces of plant growth regulator and boron on a band with his first hooded sprayer application, “usually at matchhead square. From that point on, it's on a field-to-field and as-needed basis.” Garner sidedresses 80 to 90 units of liquid nitrogen around that time, too.
Insect pressure has been light this year. According to Garner's consultants, Eddie and Danny Dunigan, aphid populations have slacked off this season, while brown stink bug pressure has intensified.
Garner defoliates in mid-September, or whenever the crop is 50 percent open.
He goes with a two-step program, varying rates of Def and Super Boll. Typically the harvest season runs between Sept. 25 and Oct. 31. But the season, especially of late, can be as long as two months.
“Last year, we were able to pick only two days a week,” Garner's son, Aaron, noted. “We finished around mid-November.”
Garner gins his cotton at Southland Gin in Lake City, where he is a partner. The gin was built in 2001, with two Continental 161 gin stands. It processed 36,000 bales in 2004. The gin recently installed LouverMax lint cleaners which, they hope, will increase turnout for growers.
“Depending on the condition of the cotton, we can add another 10 pounds of lint to a bale with the technology,” Garner said.
Garner is skeptical about demands for higher-quality cotton coming from the burgeoning international cotton market. The logic is hard for a farmer with a good business sense to follow.
“When I go to a Chevrolet dealer, the more quality I want, the more I have to pay. They charge more for high quality than they do for low quality.
“You don't buy a Chevrolet Cavalier and expect to get a Cadillac CTS.
“When the cotton price gets to the point where it's economical to grow a high-quality crop, then we can grow it. But by the same token, if the price for high-quality cotton is the same price as for low-quality cotton, it's a lot easier to grow low-quality cotton. The mills have to be willing to pay the price for the higher quality.”
Garner added that seed companies “are developing cottons with the quality and that will help. We're doing everything we can do on the farm when we pick and at the gin to preserve or enhance quality. But on some varieties, you can get only a 35 staple length at best. Some others, you can get a 36 or a 37. So it's in the genetics, too.”
The Dunigans, who have been working for the Garners since 1979, say there is more to the Garners' success than the combination of good land and adequate water supplies.
“They are conscientious about their farming practices,” Danny said. “They want to do what's right. They're in a business and they treat their farm like a business.”
Eddie added, “If something needs to be done today, it's done today. They don't put it off.”