Five factors can influence the cropping decision for Mid-South and Southeast cotton producers — commodity prices, the farmer’s affiliation with infrastructure such as grain bins or gins, the need to spread labor and/or equipment, yield consistency and the need to rotate crops to address disease, nematodes and resistant weeds.
Three producers from the Mid-South and Southeast discussed these factors as participants in a panel at the 2010 Beltwide Cotton Conferences in New Orleans.
Larry McClendon, a cotton producer and ginner from Marianna, Ark., looks for consistency of yield when mapping out his crop mix. While rice is the most consistent-yielding crop he produces, only about 10 percent of his acreage is suited for rice.
The second most consistent crop for McClendon is cotton, followed by soybeans and then corn. “Over the most recent five years in Arkansas, the state has had an average cotton yield of 1,051 pounds. The lowest yield during that five-year period had been 1,012 pounds. So you can see that cotton is a very consistent crop in Arkansas.”
There are several reasons why crop rotation is an important factor for determining crop mix, according to McClendon. “We get yield enhancements across all our rotations. We also get to rotate our chemistries on herbicides and insecticides. We are also ‘blessed’ with Palmer pigweed. It’s a big problem.”
Rotation of cotton with corn and soybeans, also allows McClendon to spread out his labor and machinery “over a lot more acres and a lot more of the calendar than we would have otherwise.”
Commodity prices are also a big factor in the cropping decision, one reason why McClendon is shifting toward more cotton this season. “At present cotton prices, a 1,051-pound yield will get you $788 in gross income. The state average yield for corn at today’s prices will get you $592. We’re $200 better off per acre today to grow cotton in Arkansas. If I’m fortunate enough to have a 10 percent yield increase, my income on cotton goes to $867, while on corn, it’s $648. So as yields move up on cotton, beans or corn, the disparity presently gets wider and wider in favor of the cotton.”
McClendon says he’s farmed “defensively” for the past few years, “but we really are going to have an opportunity to be offensive on our cotton. So this coming year, I’m not going for a base hit, I’m going for the home run. With yields that are moving up — although they’ve been skewed by horrible harvest weather the last two years — if we get good weather, we have a great opportunity for cotton in 2010.”
Jimmy Webb, a cotton, corn and peanut producer from, Leary, Ga., says rotating his acreage equally between corn, cotton and peanuts is the ideal plan.
“Peanuts are the No. 1 priority in my area. You have to rotate peanuts. Every three years, a field is going to have peanuts in it. We can’t rotate into soybeans, because like peanuts, they’re a legume. If you do have soybeans, you’re creating a problem that will eventually cut into your yields.”
Commodity prices have caused Webb to vary the mix at times. When corn prices were hovering around $2 a bushel prior to the ethanol boom, “I was down to only 50 acres of corn and a lot of cotton to pick with only two pickers. The problem is that peanuts are a perishable product. A lot of cotton buyers fuss at us in Georgia because we would leave the cotton in the field to get the peanuts. But they didn’t know about the peanuts. We have got to get the peanuts.
“When the grain prices rose, that helped. Plus, going with two years of cotton and then peanuts, I was starting to see some problems with reniform nematode. I needed to get corn back into the mix.”
Weed resistance is also starting to figure into Webb’s cropping decision each year.
“Two years ago, I found three hot spots of resistant pigweed. I actually went out there and pulled them. I didn’t want that problem. It also let me know the next year that I needed to do something different.
“In two of the fields, I went to corn, and in the other I planted a FiberMax cotton with LibertyLink, which allowed me to spray Ignite. So how bad of a problem you have with pigweed is a big factor on what you’re going to plant in Georgia. Sometimes, it comes down to how good a job your neighbor is doing because it spreads so easily.”
Webb says his investment in a gin and grain bins also plays a role in the cropping decision. “My acreage of cotton will go up a little bit this year, but not a lot because I like spreading my labor out. I don’t want to have so much invested in one crop.”
Bob Walker, a cotton producer from Somerville, Tenn., says cotton “has gotten us to where we are today and we will continue to plant cotton in the coming years. It’s kept us in the business.
“As weed resistance problems have come along, we have to rotate,” Walker said. “We try to not grow cotton on our ground more than two years in a row. Corn and soybeans will take those other years, and it works out really well.”
So far, Walker hasn’t dealt with resistant Palmer amaranth on the farm, “but we have all the horseweed that you would ever need. We all have to be smart about how we’re farming.”
Many west Tennessee cotton producers are doing that with a cotton and soybean rotation, according to Walker. “We get additional nitrogen for our cotton through rotating it with soybeans. We’re able to drop our total fertilizer usage and still bump our yields up. That’s the way we’re going to have to stay in business in west Tennessee.”