The way Justin Cariker figures it, the best way to make a profit raising cotton today is to do more with less. But cutting back on inputs at the expense of yield isn't part of his profitability plan.
The Dundee, Miss., cotton producer farms 4,500 acres of cotton and 2,000 acres of soybeans with his father, Clarence, on Maud Farms. Justin's brother, Chuck, is a partner in the business and oversees the day-to-day operation of the family's oil distributor business in Tunica, Miss.
Sixty percent of the cotton on the farm is irrigated, mostly under center pivot, and the rest is furrow-irrigated. Forty percent of the Carikers' bean ground is irrigated.
As to the squeeze that cotton producers face these days, Cariker says, “The Good Lord is going to make the difference on yield. Cutting cost is the only thing left that cotton producers can do. Diesel fuel is up 80 percent from a year ago. It's up over 100 percent from two years ago. That's unreal.”
Herbicide-resistant crops, while pricier than conventional cottons, have eased the conversion to less tillage and allowed the Carikers to work more acres with fewer people and less equipment. “We're working 4,500 acres of cotton with two 12-row planters, three cotton pickers and two hooded sprayers and a John Deer 4710 sprayer. I can't imagine working that many acres if we were having to cultivate.”
After cutting stalks in the fall, Cariker runs a Paratill on all cotton acres. Mixed fertilizer goes out, either in front of or behind the Paratill, using a spin spreader.
Heavy ground will be rowed up and rolled in the fall or left alone, depending on the condition of the bed. Lighter soils are bedded up in the spring and given a shot of N-Sol. Lighter soils will get another shot of nitrogen knifed in after cotton has emerged.
This year's rainy spring resulted in some loss of nitrogen, noted Cariker, and extra nitrogen was flown on to compensate.
After burndown applications with Touchdown and 2,4-D, heavier ground should be mellow enough for the planter, notes Cariker. “We might have to roll the beds in front of the planter.
“On our sandier soils, we might burndown after we work it up in March. I also run a harrow in front of the planter on the lighter soils. The sand can get hard on you. We'll also run a roller either in front of or behind the planter. It's a field-by-field decision.”
Varieties include DP 444 BG/RR, DP 555 BG/RR, ST 4892 BR, and ST 5599 BR. All refuges were planted in DP 436 R. Seed treatments of Cruiser and Delta Coat are used on every acre.
Cariker will burn down again with Touchdown at planting or before cotton emerges. He'll include a pyrethroid for cutworms. After cotton emerges, Cariker will go with one over-the-top glyphosate application. “It's hard for us to get two shots over everything. We try to put out Touchdown or Sequence (Dual and Touchdown).
“We followed that with Envoke. Some is applied with our hooded sprayers, some over-the-top, depending on the height of the cotton. We had to mix some Touchdown with the Envoke. Then we laid by everything with Suprend (Caporal and Envoke pre-mix) and Touchdown.”
If cotton comes up quickly, a foliar treatment for thrips may not be needed. “We have had to spray dimethoate when conditions were cool and wet and cotton wasn't growing off well,” Cariker said.
Cariker credits a good manager, Harold Garrison, with “taking some of the pressure off” during the season and entomologist Winston Earnheart, who keeps an eye on insects.
Cariker didn't make a single pyrethroid application for worms on Bt cotton in 2004. “But we got on a seven- to 10-day interval spraying for plant bugs from late June to August 13.”
Materials used on plant bugs included Bidrin and Centric and averaged $20 to $25 this season. “Plant bugs have become our No. 1 pest now,” Cariker said. “You can see a lot of hot spots in the field that the High Boy couldn't get because of a light pole and under wires the aerial applicator couldn't get.”
Plant growth regulator applications of Pentia averaged $12 to $15 across the farm. Two applications were made.
Cariker made two irrigations with rollout pipe on his furrow-irrigated ground and made four to five circles with center pivots, putting out an inch of water at a time.
Cariker uses a one-shot defoliation program. “We put out 15 gallons of water, Dropp, Def and Prep with ammonium sulfate. We did everything the same. This was one of the best years for defoliation I've ever had. In some fields every leaf came off. We have some grades that are showing that.”
He harvests with two John Deere 9976 six-row pickers, one John Deere 9960 four-row picker, three Boll Buggies and three module builders.
Cariker hopes to harvest around 2 bales across the farm. This year, some of the dryland acres, which is some of the farm's best ground, will probably pick 1,200 pounds to 1,300 pounds.
The top variety this year “looks like the ST 5599 BR. The block behind our shop is dryland, and it looks like it will pick 1,300 pounds. We're also getting some premiums on the grades for all varieties, an average of about 2.5 cents. We're not seeing any discounts for high micronaire.”
While cutting costs is the key to profitability amid rising input costs, Cariker stresses that slashing too much can have the opposite effect.
“We can't neglect inputs. It will show on yield. We're still subsoiling every acre to keep yields up. We have to do what's working.”
With a global market, the loss of domestic spinning mills and a new emphasis on producing quality cotton, a cotton producer can at times feel powerless to effect long-term change. Not Cariker. He's participating in the Cotton Leadership Program, which receives support from The Cotton Foundation via a grant from DuPont Agricultural Products. The National Cotton Council administers the program.
“It was an honor to be accepted,” said Cariker, who wants to “expand my horizons beyond the farm. It's going to be a fast-paced learning experience.”
Last year, Cariker visited south Texas farming operations as part of FMC's Producer Information Exchange (PIE) program. He also attended a two-week policy education class through the National Cotton Council.