Charles Parker must love growing cotton as much as anyone in the Cotton Belt. Why else would he stay strictly with the white stuff at a time when corn and soybeans markets were convincing many other Mid-South growers to grow grain?
“We’re cotton farmers,” proclaims Parker, despite dragging through possibly his most-trying growing season ever. “We’ve been in the cotton business over four decades and plan to stay in it.”
Those comments came in October — even after he was a good three weeks late in getting pickers in the field to cap off a production year he’d just as soon forget. Drought, and then rain, rain and more rain washed out any semblance of a normal year.
Parker farms with his son-in-law, Alan Jones, out of Senath in the Missouri Bootheel. He saw numerous neighbors shift cotton acres into corn and beans when grain prices skyrocketed three years ago.
He stayed with his bread and butter, but was hungry for some good growing conditions most of 2009. He wasn’t alone, of course, as wet weather walloped production over much of the Mid-South and Southeast.
USDA’s October forecast put the cotton crop at 13 million bales, down 3 percent from September, but up 1 percent from 2008. Upland production was pegged at 12.6 million bales, down 3 percent from September but up 2 percent from last year. Delta region growers are expecting decreased yields due to excessive rainfall.
Parker and Jones farm about 3,600 acres of cotton in 38-inch rows and count on 28 center pivots for irrigation in normal years. “We have pivots on about 2,300 acres and furrow irrigation on about 1,100 acres,” says Parker.
It’s mostly minimum tillage boosted by precision agricultural technology such as auto-steering and variable rate application. He has even started using a “smart phone” for everything from talking with his wife, Phyllis, to following the markets and reviewing cotton news updates.
They are part owners of Farmers Union Gin in Senath, which like other gins, has felt the harvest-delay-doldrums this fall. “The plant had only ginned 60 bales by mid-October,” says Parker, “compared to 14,000 bales by the same time last year. We expect to be picking cotton a long time. We’ll probably have Thanksgiving dinner in the field.”
Parker, a long-time leader in regional cotton groups and the National Cotton Council, dealt with wet weather from planting time on. “We started planting April 23 and finished about June 2,” he says. “We’d plant two days and it would rain 10.
“Then it turned extremely hot in mid-June and into early July. But the last 15 days of July we received 15 inches of rain. And then it kept raining regularly into August and September. We were able to squeeze in the heat units we needed but had trouble getting the crop matured enough to start harvest.”
Wet, cool weather played tricks with growth regulators and harvest aids. “Boll openers don’t work as well in the cooler temperatures,” he explains, “and we were seeing 50 degrees in the day and 40 degrees at night.”
He was seeing a few cases of boll rot, but with a little help and change of heart from Mother Nature, a good crop was in the works. “We usually average about 2.5 bales per acre,” he says, “and we may get a little better than average yield — if we get the weather to mature the crop.”
Harvest is expected to run smoother, thanks to two John Deere 7760 module-building pickers. “We’ve improved our harvesting efficiency with them,” says Parker. “We’ve gone from three pickers to two and don’t require boll buggies or tractors to pull them or conventional module builders.”
Parker monitors harvest using a cotton micronaire test procedure developed by Arkansas farmer-agronomist Hal Lewis. It involves harvesting the first four position bolls from several locations in the field, blending, then ginning them in a micro-gin. He uses a chart to predict what micronaire will be if a field is harvested immediately or taken out to later maturity.
Parker has seen tough years before and believes the advances seen in seed quality and weed, insect and disease control have enhanced the ability of growers to get through rough growing conditions with much less crop damage or loss.
“Maybe the biggest plus for us has been boll weevil eradication,” stresses Parker, who is chairman of the NCC Boll Weevil Action Committee. “It helped as much as anything this year. If we hadn’t had eradication, we would have had severe problems with weevils. We might not have made a crop.”
He’s battling some weed resistance pressure from pigweed and marestail, but likes what he sees in the seed-genetic pipeline to add further tools for weed management.
“Roundup Ready Flex and Bollgard II have been good for us and we’re seeing new seed lines that enable us to also apply Ignite herbicide and others to help with weed control,” says Parker.
The industry advances help ease the burden of years like 2009. And if Parker has his way, 2010 will bring about his 47th straight cotton crop. He’d just like to see a little more cooperation from the weather.