Had it not been for the efficiencies of no-till and the advantages of genetically modified varieties, brothers Larry and Bill Coker agree they probably wouldn’t be growing cotton today.

As it is, they’re the only resident growers still in the cotton business in Union County, Miss. — and for the last 10 years they’ve grown only cotton.

“No-till, the Roundup Ready system, and the Bt gene have made a world of difference,” says Bill, who recalls all too well the 1995 season when the tobacco budworm decimated cotton in their area. “We had what promised to be a one and a half-bale crop and we ended up harvesting one-third bale.

“The following year, a lot of growers tossed in the towel. We were in a co-op gin and it got down to only four growers — we were the largest. When corn and soybean prices went up, that was a further nail in cotton’s coffin.

“Bt cotton was the salvation for us, but it came a couple of years too late to save cotton for everyone else. The boll weevil eradication program has also been a tremendous asset to cotton production.”

The Cokers have been total no-till for the last eight years, and were doing minimum-till for many years before that.

But, even with no-till and cotton seed technology, continuing a cotton-based farming operation took something of a leap of faith on their part — first, that they could hold the line on costs by running older equipment that they, for the most part, maintain themselves, and second, that they could do most of the farming labor themselves.

“We try to grow the best cotton we can at the lowest cost we can, and that has meant using older equipment and keeping it in good shape,” Larry says. “We feel we can pick cotton for about half the amount in the Extension budget. There’s no way we could do that if we went out and bought a new six-row picker; we ran two-row pickers until 2000, when we moved up to used four-row equipment.

“We do most of the farm work ourselves — from machinery repairs (right now, we’re converting a narrow-row picker we bought to conventional row width) — to planting, spraying, and harvesting.

“Bill’s wife, Susan, and his son, Steve, help with module building, and we’ll hire a neighbor or two to run boll buggies. Our older brother, Jimmy, also helps out at harvest time.

“Our consultant, Bert Falkner, makes all the recommendations for insect control, growth regulator, and defoliation, and keeps check on the crop throughout the season. Everything is ground-applied; we don’t do any aerial application — another place we hold the line on costs.

Why stay with cotton?

Why did they stay with cotton, rather than joining the crowd to corn and soybeans?

“There were a number of considerations,” Bill says. “We hadn’t run our combine in a long time, we’d sold our corn head and grain buggies, and we didn’t have the trucks we’d need to haul grain to the elevator (we both hate driving grain trucks). The last year we’d grown corn there were a lot of aflatoxin problems and some growers had loads turned down. Also, about that time, everyone was beginning to worry about Asian soybean rust.

“Every time we’d sit down to do budgets, we couldn’t figure any way to make the economics work with corn and soybeans without having a lot more acres and having to buy more equipment. So, we just decided to stick with cotton and devote our full attention to growing the best cotton possible as economically as possible. In retrospect, we feel it was a good decision.

“When we started growing Bollgard 33, we had the highest yield we’d ever made, even though we’d reduced our acreage. We averaged over two bales per acre — not bad for hill cotton — and wished we had planted more.”

They’ve grown Roundup Ready cotton ever since, says Bill. “We’ve stuck with the Roundup system because it’s less expensive for us, and if things go wrong, as they did last year with all the rain that required a lot of replanting (some for the third time), we know that Monsanto will work with us.

“Our varieties are all Deltapine: We have 0912, 0924, 1028, and 1034; all are Roundup Ready and Bt Flex. The Flex trait is a big advantage for us. We also have about 10 acres of several varieties in a test plot in cooperation with the Extension Service.

“It seems that major changes in techniques and technologies occur about every five years or so, and we’ve always done our best to adopt them.

“That doesn’t mean we go out and buy new everything. We’re running older equipment, all bought used; we have no GPS. Our spray rigs do have controllers and we have monitors on the planters, a nice technology advance that allows us to do field prep work all day and plant at night, if we need to.”

They have a lot of variation in soil types, Larry notes, and “we’ve considered getting variable rate technology, but we just aren’t ready to make that investment yet.

“We were probably the first in the county to move to eight-row equipment — everyone else had gone to six-row — but, for us, it was a matter of economics. It was a tremendous improvement in terms of time and labor.”

While their fields are scattered and fairly small — the largest is about 50 acres — Bill says they’re all within a three-mile radius of their shop, so they don’t have to move equipment long distances. Their cotton goes to Scruggs Gin near Belden, Miss., about 15 miles away.

Roundup applications

“We’ve made three applications of Roundup this season,” Bill says. “After burndown, we usually add Roundup in our lay-by application of diuron in case any weeds have come through. As far as we know, we’ve had no resistant weeds.

“We’ve used Prowl and Prowl H20 since we’ve been no-till to control morningglory (our main weed pest), johnsongrass, and pigweed, and for other species where Roundup may be a bit weak. The Prowl is good insurance, it’s fairly cheap, and we hope the alternate chemistry will help hold off resistance.

“We’ve had a few small spots of marestail that regular rate Roundup didn’t kill. I don’t know if a heavier rate would’ve taken them out, but we just stopped and pulled them up as we were going through the fields.

“There has been some documented resistance in the area and before we start the season next year, we’ll discuss with our consultant and supplier about whether we should make changes in our weed control program — perhaps applying Prowl with our burndown, then coming back over the top with Dual. A big consideration there is the extra expense.”

The Cokers are believers in no-till, having first tried it back in the 1970s.

“The Soil Conservation Service was promoting no-till soybeans,” Larry recalls. “We Bush Hogged weeds, sprayed the fields, and planted. It was a huge mess, but it gave us an insight into the process and in the late 1980s we planted some no-till cotton as a trial. We made mistakes in procedures and timing, but we learned from our mistakes and the next year we expanded acreage. We closely followed all the no-till work being done at the Milan, Tenn., Experiment Station.

“To grow no-till cotton, we needed a good directed spray rig, which we didn’t have. We took an old cotton picker and put an oiling bar on the front for a directed spray. We could spray three different chemicals, and could spot spray for johnsongrass and cockleburs. Between us, we didn’t have enough hands to operate everything, but it still was a lot faster than hoeing or spraying by hand, and we used it until Roundup Ready came out.”

The Cokers usually hold off on planting until May. “We started May 12 this year,” Larry says. “We’ve found that May-planted cotton has produced our best crops; we’ve had trouble keeping stands when we planted in April.

“We soil test our fields every third year and follow the average recommendation. Most of the time, we spread 3-15-30 dry fertilizer at about 250 pounds per acre. Even where we have fairly good residual fertility, we’ll put out some fertilizer for maintenance. Then, we’ll apply 25 gallons per acre of 32 percent liquid nitrogen at squaring. On most of our sandy soils, if we get ‘normal’ rains, this gives us the capability of two bales per acre or more.

“We’ve sprayed a bit more than normal for plant bugs this year, but that pest is pretty much a given following boll weevil eradication. We added a pyrethroid for green stink bugs and any worms that might escape the Bt. In some areas, we had worms near the threshold level, but the Bt and pyrethroid took care of them. We’ve had armyworms in area hay fields, but so far they haven’t been a problem in our cotton.”

This year’s crop

The Cokers are “very pleased” with how the crop is shaping up this year, Bill says. “We were a bit worried when we got the long stretch of 100-degrees-plus days and no rain from mid-June to mid-July. But going into September, everything is looking good.

“The way the crop is going, with all the extra DD-60s we’ve had, we may defoliate some about mid-September and start picking late September.”

Their 2009 crop turned out better than they had expected, given the almost daily deluges that occurred.

“On Sept. 1 last year, we had two-bale or better potential,” Bill says. “Over the next 20 days we got 20 inches of rain. It was a mess. We thought we’d be lucky to get one-third bale, but we ended up with one and a third bales. Again, we think the later planting was a factor because a lot of the bolls weren’t open during the worst of the rains. The more open the cotton was, the more it was hurt.”

They have mixed emotions about the new $2 billion Toyota plant that has been built less than 10 miles away, and its impact on the area’s agriculture.

“There was a bubble of land speculation after the announcement,” Larry says. “Prices quadrupled overnight.

“Three-fourths of our land is rented, the rest we own. We aren’t actively looking for any more land, particularly at ‘Toyota prices,’ but we wouldn’t say no to some more acreage if we got an attractive deal.”