As high grain prices and skyrocketing fertilizer costs continue to drive Mid-South cotton acreage to lower levels, you wouldn’t think much positive would come of it. But for cotton producer Kris Robinson, there are a couple of long-term benefits.
As he’s shifted to more wheat and soybeans to increase profits and lower risk on the farm, he can do a better job on glyphosate-resistant weeds that have popped up in cotton. And as fertilizer prices have risen, he’s moving to more efficient methods of application in cotton that could cut costs in the long run.
Robinson, who farms near Steele, Mo., produced about 2,000 acres of cotton last year. This year, the farm cut back to 1,600 acres, and will likely cut back again next year. Cotton acreage will continue to be replaced by wheat and soybeans and some early soybeans. Robinson said, “Cotton input costs are tying up so much money. The input costs for wheat and beans are a lot less.”
Robinson has not followed the trend to increase corn acreage, noting, “One year I planted it, I had dryland corn and made 150 bushels an acre. The next year, I had 77 bushels of corn and aflatoxin, and it took me two months to get rid of it. I’d prefer not to grow corn again unless I had to.”
After cutting cotton stalks in the fall of 2007, Robinson knocked down all his beds and put up new ones using John Deere’s AutoTrak RTK guidance system. In the same operation, he sowed wheat to protect young cotton seedlings from blowing sand. Wheat was planted in the middles only “to minimize residue management,” according to Robinson.
To battle resistant weeds, “This coming year, if we can get the wheat up early enough, we’re going to spray some Valor in the fall. We’re also thinking about putting some Treflan or Prowl down in the beds in the spring.”
He leaves the beds until March, when they are knocked down. “Usually we spray them with 2,4-D and Clarity, but this year it was so wet we didn’t get to do that. We sprayed a burndown at planting from around the end of April to the first of May. If the wheat has some size on, we may burn down a week ahead of our usual window.”
Robinson is experimenting with variable-rate applications of nitrogen on the farm. But pinning down cost savings can be elusive. “We’re still learning how to do things. We did more last year than this year, because we could get our dry fertilizer a lot cheaper. “
The variable-rate application was made by a local UAP dealer and Earl’s Flying Service in one shot around June 1 and saved Robinson about 26 units of nitrogen per acre. “We usually put out 90 units and we used only 64 units. But it was a dry year so we couldn’t compare it to another year to see if it actually helped. But you couldn’t tell any difference in the crop.”
This season, however, “it was cheaper for me to buy liquid fertilizer and rig it up and apply it myself.” Robinson knifed in nitrogen when cotton came up to a full stand in May. “As soon as we get our wheat out and our beans planted, we’ll put a second shot out.”
Cotton is planted with two John Deere 7300 planters. Cotton varieties include DP 445 BG/RR, DP 164 B2RF, ST 4498 B2RF, ST 4427 B2RF and ST 4554 B2RF. Seed is treated with Avicta and Aeris seed treatments.
Robinson will make three or four Roundup applications during the season. “We also used some Sequence, which is a combination of Roundup and Dual. We had good luck with that.”
Robinson is starting to see more glyphosate-resistant marestail and pigweed in his cotton fields, and that’s another area where crop diversity is helping. “In cotton, the only way we could kill them was with a hoe. It’s like we’re going back to the old way of doing things before we had Roundup Ready crops. That’s a big reason why we are rotating more wheat and soybeans, just to clean things up.”
Robinson will add Pix to the Roundup application when necessary. However, “This year, we used less Pix than we ever have because it was so dry. We just didn’t want to slow the plant down.”
Consultant Cody Taylor keeps Robinson apprised of insect infestations. Plant bugs have become the primary cotton pest for Robinson, “but this year has been a mild year. The only place we had plant bugs was on our irrigated ground. “
Taylor and Robinson switch chemistries for plant bugs instead of staying with one product consistently, “to keep the mode of action different.” Trimax or Centric is piggybacked with a Roundup application when possible.
Robinson and his landlords are steadily increasing irrigation capacity on the farm. “We put in two new pivots this year and we have some in flood irrigation. We’re also looking at adding a couple of new pivots next year. If we get that in this year, we’ll have a third of the farm irrigated.
This season has been dry, but not excessively hot for Robinson. Cooler weather in September “is slowing the crop down. Last year, we were picking the day after Labor Day. This year, we started picking at the end of September.”
Robinson goes with a two-shot defoliation of Prep and Dropp and picks with a John Deere 9996 equipped with a yield monitor. For Robinson, yield maps of fields are a good starting point for variable-rate fertilizer applications. “We want to incorporate the yield maps and Veris data. It’s not really a fine-tuned technology, but it’s going in that direction. We’re doing it to save money. If you can cut 10 to 30 units off your blanket applications, you’re saving money and you’re putting the product where it’s needed the most.”
Robinson would like to add on-board modeling to his harvest at some point, “but with the acres I have now, I can’t really justify it. You have to have 2,000 to 2,500 acres to justify it for the price.”
Robinson gins his cotton with Cooter Cotton Gin in Cooter, Mo., and Cotton Growers Gin in Dell, Ark.
For Robinson, producing cotton is like walking tightrope every year, with huge expenses for fertilizer, fuel and seed on one side and the need for big crops and good marketing on the other. “We were fortunate back in the spring that we booked some cotton at a pretty good price.”
Cotton’s risky nature has challenged Robinson to find new ways to make cotton and the farm profitable. “I was born and raised around cotton. It’s what I know how to do. But I have to spread my risks a little more than I have.”