STARKVILLE, Miss., -- Mississippi cotton producers may be celebrating historically record high cotton yields, but lower prices and higher inputs are actually pushing profit potential for the 2004 crop below that of 2003.

A half-century ago, Mississippi cotton growers averaged 378 pounds of lint per acre from 2.46 million acres of cotton. Mechanical cotton pickers were on the scene then, but cotton production was limited by the chemical control methods available for insects and weeds and by the yield potential of the growers’ limited number of varieties.

In 2004, Mississippi cotton farmers did what many didn’t think they would live to see, or at least wish their fathers and grandfathers in the farming profession before them could have lived to see.

In the December projection of crops released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Mississippi producers grew an on-farm average of 1,000 pounds of cotton lint per acre, surpassing last year’s almost unbelievable yield of 934 pounds of lint per acre and ranking only fourth in the amount of cotton grown per acre in any state this year in the United States.

A non-farmer reader reviewing those statistics on paper might assume this was the year cotton growers would be buying new trucks and taking long-deserved vacations, but despite the record-breaking yields, economists says growers actually made less money this year than in 2003.

“In the row crop sector, value of production is projected to be lower than last year for most of the state's major crops. Yields are good on most crops by historic standards, comparing favorably to last year's record-setting yields in many cases,” says John Anderson, an agricultural economist at Mississippi State University. “On the other hand, prices for most crops are down this year compared to last.”

Despite a record-breaking and almost inconceivable cotton crop, the value of cotton production is projected to be down almost 20 percent compared to last year due to lower prices.

Steve Martin, an agricultural economist at the Delta Research and Extension Center at Stoneville, says the estimated value of production for the 2004 cotton crop is $597 million, down about 14 percent from 2003.

“This price decrease is a result of an increase in production in the United States, as well as the rest of the world. Globally, 112 million bales of cotton were produced. This is a pretty significant price drop. Last year, we had the opportunity to sell at 70 to 80 cents per pound of lint. This year, producers will be receiving the loan rate of 52 cents,” Martin says. “We’re talking about a 20-cent decline or a reduction of 25 percent to 30 percent per pound of lint.

Martin says price in the 60- to 65-cent range are about average for considering break- even costs. The lowest prices in recent history came in 2001 at about 28 cents per pound of lint.

Adding insult to injury for farmers is the knowledge that even with bumper yields, their prices for lint are lower and their prices for inputs are significantly higher, especially fuel and fertilizer prices. Cotton requires a high rate of nitrogen and anhydrous ammonia each year. While producers paid as much as 10 percent more for those inputs in 2004, optimistic projections are for only 4 percent increases in 2005.

As producers begin to make planting decisions for the coming year, the excitement over the record-breaking yields can’t help but influence their planting decisions, but Anderson says the coming year may hold more than the usual amount of uncertainty for agricultural markets.

“Trade-related issues will be among the most important factors affecting agricultural industries in 2005. The recent World Trade Organization (WTO) ruling in favor of Brazil in a dispute with the United States over cotton subsidies may call into question some key elements of our existing farm program structure.” says Anderson. “It remains to be seen if WTO obligations will contribute to significant changes to these programs.”

Despite the price slump, MSU Extension Cotton Specialist Tom Barber expects cotton acreage to remain near the 1.01 million acres harvested in Mississippi in 2004.

“When we look forward to a new year of management decisions, variety selection and soil fertility levels are the top two things to think about,” says Barber. “Producers will need to select varieties that provide quality as well as yield potential, because quality is driving our markets.”

We need to produce the quality that foreign markets want by looking at quality-producing characteristics with more scrutiny than we have in the past, he adds.

Preliminary yield and quality data for Mississippi State University’s Official Cotton Variety Trials are available on line at http://msucares.com/crops/variety/yield/index.html. MSU cotton breeder Ted Wallace says with excellent growing conditions at some of the on-farm variety trial locations, they saw a limited number of commercial and experimental varieties or germplasms yield more than 2,300 pounds of lint in early maturity tests at Clarksdale in the Delta; more than 1,900 pounds of lint in the early maturity tests in Raymond and Desoto County in the hills; more than 2,200 pounds of lint at the mid maturity hill location at Raymond; and more than 1,900 pounds of lint in the mid maturity trials at Rolling Fork and Clarksdale.

Dozens of varieties were evaluated for lint percent, seed index, boll size, length, uniformity, strength, elongation and micronaire at all locations. Wallace encourages producers to obtain the trial results from their MSU Extension offices or download the trials and review them for all criteria.

Eva Ann Dorris is a freelance writer from Pontotoc, Miss., who contributes frequently to Delta Farm Press.

e-mail: eadorris@aol.com.