Business is business, as they say, and considering current market prices it’s understandable why the Mid-South’s rich soils are increasingly being planted in grains. But, whether built on sweet nostalgia or hard-core infrastructure, King Cotton hasn’t gone down without a fight.

Just two signs of the times: An expected dip in worldwide cotton plantings in 2013 while major upgrades to a Mississippi grain facility to service client farmers are finished.

In 2013/2014, the International Cotton Advisory Committee projects that “global cotton production will decrease by 11 percent to 23.2 million tons (106.56 million bales) … due to lower cotton prices and increased attractiveness of competing crops.

“This would be the second consecutive season of decline in cotton production and the smallest output in four years. Production is expected to fall sharply in the United States and Turkey, where competition with grains and soybeans is strong.”

For more, see here and here.

Meanwhile, grain producers will be pleased to know that Express Grain Terminals in Sidon, Miss., will add 1.1 million bushels of grain storage and a 12,500-bushel-per-hour grain dryer (the largest grain dryer in production). The additions – expected to be ready for the 2013 harvest -- will increase the facility’s grain storage to 2.5 million bushels and drying capacity to 17,500 bushels per hour. The upgrades will allow grain drying capacity at the Sidon terminal to triple from 2012 levels.

Mississippi corn history

The distinct trend away from cotton and to grains in the Mid-South began showing up in earnest a few years ago. The history between the two, though, began much earlier.

“There is an interesting history of corn acreage in Mississippi, beginning shortly after the Civil War,” Erick Larson, Mississippi State University corn specialist.

It turns out the state harvested over one million acres of corn around 1866 and 1867. Corn acreage steadily increased to two million acres in 1894. There were almost three million corn acres in the state in 1917 and that total was exceeded in 1921.

“Basically, Mississippi maintained over one million corn acres until 1960,” says Larson. “That was largely because the animals used to work the ground needed to be fed. When mechanization improved and power equipment became good enough to plow the land, the need to grow corn decreased.”

That’s why, by 1970, Mississippi only had 223,000 acres of corn. By 1980, the state had less than 100,000 acres of corn. As mechanization took hold, corn was hardly grown as a cash crop.

“In 1990, we still had only 140,000 acres. In the following years corn planting began to pick up. Between 1992 and 1995, acreage was between 190,000 and 275,000.”

Larson came to his current position in 1995. A year later, there was a significant change in the farm bill with ‘freedom to farm,’ which allowed producers to grow a program crop different than their five-year history.

That was important, “because corn may never be the best adapted crop and won’t work as well when grown continuously in the South. It’s a very complimentary crop and does very well in rotation systems. That 1996 farm bill change allowed growers to grow corn as markets dictated.

“That led to a big corn increase in 1996 when we planted over 600,000 acres for the first time since 1965 – over 30 years.”

Mississippi then maintained about 500,000 corn acres until 1998 when there a big aflatoxin problem arose. That dinged acreage a bit and the state stabilized at 450,000 corn acres through 2006.

Then, there was a drastic upswing in 2007 when Mississippi producers planted 930,000 acres of corn. “We still haven’t eclipsed that high mark but have been working towards it with over 700,000 acres since 2007,” says Larson. “That’s been dictated by commodity markets – corn and soybeans have been very favorable compared to cotton during that time period.”

For an Arkansas perspective, see here.

Making the switch

Larson knows of many operations that have moved to grains over cotton “in a big way. I’ve heard numerous testimonies from farmers saying they haven’t grown cotton at all in recent years.

“You used to drive past farms and they’d have bunches of production signs along the roadside saying ‘XYZ Cotton Planting Company.’ Now, you drive those same roads and you can’t find a cotton field.”

It’s rather easy to make the switch, he says. “That’s because there’s very little additional equipment a farmer needs to invest in. It may take nothing beyond buying a corn header for the combine. Most of the guys growing cotton are already growing soybeans so the combine is already on site.”

Of course, grain storage is more of a long-term commitment, which many growers have made.

“We believed that lacking infrastructure would be a big limitation for growing corn in the Mid-South. And that is still the case, I think. But we’ve gotten better at working around that while the infrastructure – both commercial and farmer-owned – has caught up. Both sides of that infrastructure, whether putting up grain bins and buying combines and using temporary poly-storage bags, have adapted substantially. There has really been a substantial commitment made to corn since 2007.”

A producer can grow corn in cotton-based production systems rather easily. “One of the major differences between the Mid-South and Corn Belt is our row widths are based on the traditional wide cotton planting systems – 38- to 40-inch rows. In areas where cotton isn’t a major player, growers made a transition to 30-inch rows 30 or 40 years ago.”

Those narrow rows are gaining more interest in Mississippi. “We’ve got more farmers that don’t have cotton as part of their cropping mix,” says Larson. “If you’re just growing corn and soybeans, you can improve productivity by 10 percent, or more. That’s a major opportunity.”

From a research and educational standpoint that’s a key area to mine. “It’s hard to change growers’ philosophies about things like row widths. Mississippi cotton, corn and soybeans have always been grown on wider rows that originally accommodated a plow and a horse’s rear end.”

What is being lost

While excited about the expansion of grains, Larson admits the loss of cotton “has been sad in some respects. Corn will never be what cotton once was. Corn is a unique crop that works well in Southern production systems. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t still a place for cotton.

“It’s kind of sad that the economy has pushed agriculture away from cotton and that has meant a loss of infrastructure, acreage and confidence in it being the primary row crop.”

Dr. Will McCarty, a well known, veteran Mississippi State University cotton specialist and current independent consultant stationed in Brandon, Miss., says the transition has been bittersweet, at best.

“There is a succession in farming just as there is a succession of generations,” says McCarty. “At one time, there were a lot of cattle in the Delta, cotton was the staple a few other crops were grown. As the farms were handed down, the first thing the next generation did was sell the cattle and tear out the fences. They didn’t like working with them.”

Then, as the farms were again passed to the next generation, “they quit growing cotton and switched to grains. It just happens that way. Sad for those of us who worked so hard to make growing cotton easier, eradicate the boll weevil, develop more efficient practices and equipment, etc., and then growers stop planting large acreages of cotton.

“There’s a perception that growing grains is easier than cotton, that they require less investment in capital and perhaps work, and there’s less risk.”

One can’t argue that “really productive, irrigated land won’t produce high grain yields,” says McCarty. “And with today’s grain prices those crops are extremely attractive. Plus, when they plant grains they pretty much know what their production costs will be.

“Still, some degree of uncertainty of production cost and management intensity required, and some growers just don’t like those risk and uncertainties. The story is different for dry-land acres both in the Delta and non-Delta. Generally, cotton can handle more environmental stresses (drought and heat) in non-irrigated scenarios than can grains.”

McCarty frets that too few understand what moving away from cotton is doing in a broader sense. “I worry we’re being a little short-sighted. The turnover of cotton dollars in the rural economy and what it supports can’t easily be replaced by grains. Something will have to change if cotton acreage does not gravitate back upward.

“It would be interesting to know if there’s an economic study to see how high grain prices would have to be before they replace cotton in the community. Growing cotton takes more consultants, more aerial applicators, gins and gin workers, general inputs and thus cotton production dollars turn over several times in the local economy.”

Too few consider the ripples that occur when a gin shuts down, says McCarty. “When a gin locks the doors how many kilowatt hours of electricity will the little rural power association not get to sell? A gin burns a lot of electricity. Gins require parts and labor that help support local communities.”

Dollars are constantly being turned over in the cotton business. “Trucks are hauling cotton bales, trucks hauling cottonseed, distributors are selling fertilizer, selling insecticides, herbicides, defoliants, etc. Consultants are actively engaged in working with the crop. Mechanics and parts are needed to keep the equipment going. Energy is consumed by all these operations, to include irrigation systems.

“Corn and soybeans don’t require as much part-time labor as cotton. Those laborers lose the opportunity to work during the production cycle and at harvest, both on the farms and in the gins. And those workers tend to take their paycheck and spend it locally – at the gas station. Grocery stores, quick-stops and clothing stores.”

What about the ease or difficulty of going back to cotton from grains?

Switching back could be done “fairly easily and would require a cotton picker not needed in the grain operation,” says McCarty. That’s about the only difference in equipment – planters and sprayers can adapt.

“But you’d be coming back to cotton after losing a generation that knew how to grow the crop. Some folks would say, ‘You’re being facetious because you’re a cotton guy.’

“I’d argue that cotton is a different beast than grains. With cotton, you do something different every week. As the shift to grains continues, we’re steadily losing the skill set needed to grow cotton. That’s not saying a grain farmer can’t grow cotton, but it would require a willingness to learn about a slightly more complicated crop.

“Cotton is an indeterminate perennial and is a fascinating plant to manage. Corn and soybeans are determinate annuals and thus have different growth and fruiting habits than cotton. That isn’t a small thing. Let someone stay away from cotton for a few years and, if they want to transition back to it they’ll need a little help getting back in the groove, so to speak. That’s simply because they’ll have forgotten some of the management requirements.”

McCarty is careful to insist he isn’t saying “one farmer or crop is better than another, just that there are differences. I’m not saying one can’t switch crops. But growing cotton requires a little more effort to be expended. It’s almost like a labor of love.”

The best scenario, he says, would be a mix of all the major crops. “We have always known the advantages of crop rotations and our growers need to practice (it). We don’t need to be 100 percent corn or beans, or 100 percent cotton. We need a mix of cotton, corn and soybeans and a rotation program to allow those crops to maximize production on our varying soil types and land resource areas.

“If you look at some of the most successful farmers we have in the state, they’re working the same program they were 20 years ago. Rotation works.”

Does McCarty think there will be a shift back to cotton?

“It all depends on the price. I am hoping we will see a price move in the near future which would lead to a bit of an acreage increase in 2014. We’re in a different world, though. Cotton produced in other countries can compete with us.

“However, the mills seem as though they’d much rather have American-grown cotton than that grown overseas. We have a consistent, quality product. The bales will be uniform and clean. We just need the price paid to the grower to reflect that a little better.”