Cotton bottom line moving target

The bottom line. It's one of those business-speak phrases (probably coined by some MBA, CEO making Widgets in Walla Walla) that rapidly descended into cliché status.

But occasionally it still seems appropriate, especially the bottom part.

Jon Prince, a Nueces County, Texas, cotton and grain farmer, for instance, spends a lot of time looking at it.

He says a profitable bottom line has been harder to find lately. “Energy costs made a big difference this year,” he says. “And fertilizer costs are up 25 percent from last year. Folks who bought early and applied nutrients last fall came out OK, but I like to sidedress. It pays off on land rotated with grain sorghum.

“So we have to find other ways to save money on cotton and grain production,” Prince says.

He points out his old but serviceable equipment that he's learned to run longer than he used to. He and his son Jeff do much of the repair work in the near immaculate farm shop. That helps some.

He's also encouraged by some relatively new weed control chemistry. “Envoke herbicide does a good job on broadleaf weeds,” Prince says. “It's particularly good on morningglory and sunflower.”

That addition, plus Select and other useful herbicides, may allow Prince to get back to less expensive brown bag seed next year.

“I can buy a lot of herbicides for the tech fees I pay to get transgenic varieties,” he says.

Bollworm concern

“I just hope we don't run into heavy bollworm pressure,” says Harvey Buehring, Nueces County Extension agent. “Only 30 percent of our 142,000 acres of cotton in this county was planted to Bollgard varieties in 2004.

“A mix of Roundup Ready and Liberty Link cotton also made sense this year.”

Much of the Coastal Bend was hammered by planting-time rain; so some of the pre-plant herbicide did not work well, Buehring says. “Timely over-the-top Roundup applications were limited due to wet field conditions. The longer window of opportunity permitted for applying Ignite over the top of Liberty Link varieties was a big advantage this spring,” he says.

“A lot of our yellow herbicide simply played out,” Prince says. “We just had too much water. I had to replant 600 acres of cotton three times.”

The delay will haunt him all season. For one thing, the staggered planting will make timing harvest aide applications difficult. “I planted my oldest cotton in early March. The last went in on the last day of March. The crop is not uniform.”

He says cool temperatures that accompanied the rain also set the cotton back. “We had rain through March and into April, about six weeks. We didn't get enough heat units early and with this much water in the soil, plants did not put down a good root system.”

On the flip side, those early rains helped his grain sorghum, a good rotation option. Prince says rotation helps boost cotton yields. “Cotton and grain sorghum make a good system,” he says. “It's a bit better than usual this year with grain prices up a bit. And that's a good thing because we're probably looking at a deficiency payment for cotton.”

Usually rotates

He says he'll usually rotate year-in and year-out with cotton and sorghum but occasionally runs cotton two years in a row.

“If I have good soil moisture I may plant cotton a second year,” he says. “I made good cotton last year on back-to-back planting. The key is good subsoil moisture.”

Variety selection has helped as well.

“I have most of my acreage in three varieties this year, FiberMax 832, 958 and 960BR. I have a little DPL 494.”

He planted some FM 800B2R but lost it to early storms.

“I've been planting FiberMax because of the quality,” Prince says. “It's the best grading cotton we have and it fits a niche in this area.”

He says the cotton may not look particularly impressive during the season but makes a big difference at the gin.

Buehring says FiberMax varieties accounted for more than 85 percent of the county's cotton acreage last year. “About 69 percent of that was 832 and 832B.”

He says FiberMax success has stimulated other seed companies to produce high-yield potential, high quality cotton. “Competition is getting better.”

Prince looks at a host of cotton varieties every year by cooperating with Buehring on variety tests. “I've done that for more than 30 years,” he says. Looking at new varieties affords him an opportunity to evaluate newcomers on his soil conditions and under his management system. That way, when something works, he can adjust quickly and add it to his mix.

He's paying attention this year to some of the Bollgard II varieties but says his old standby, FM 832, “will be hard to beat. It's resilient.” I'm also looking at some of the Liberty Link cotton.”

Always changing

Prince says cotton farmers face, “a different ball game every year. Farming has changed more the last 10 years than it did the entire 30 years before that, primarily because of transgenic varieties.

“I'm not completely sold on all the technology,” he says. “It costs a lot of money. We have to make two to two-and-half bales per acre to pay the bills. There will be a year when we won't make that.”

Buehring understands the sentiment. He says the stacked gene or Bollgard technology has not been widely adopted in the Coastal Bend area. “This is dryland farming country and yields can vary greatly. During the drought years when the first Bollgard lines were released, our yields were only averaging 400 to 500 pounds per acre,” he says. “Our farmers only had to spray once or twice for worms before cut-out during those years.”

He says if an $8 per acre shot of pyrethroid would take care of the worms, a farmer saved $12 compared to the $20 tech fee.

“Even at two trips, at a $16 per acre cost, it's still cheaper by $4 per acre,” Buehring says.

But that scenario may be changing as the area comes out of the drought. “Return potential from Bollgard changes with more favorable moisture. When yields get closer to a bale and a half the environment for worm pressure usually improves as well, then Bollgard changes from being expensive insurance to a profitable investment.

“Last season in a test field yielding in the two-bale range a comparison of three varieties with and without Bollgard showed a dollar return ranging from a high of $76 to a low of $9 per acre advantage for Bollgard when presuming the cost of the seed was identical and deducting the Bollgard tech fees from the gross returns. These plots were very near the worm treatment threshold in early June, but the plots were never sprayed.”

So there's a loop in the logic. Farmers have to outsmart Mother Nature.

“Our potential yield jump in a wet growing season to one and three-quarters to two plus bales per acre makes a difference,” Buehring says. “Wet conditions make it more likely farmers will have to apply three or four treatments for worms with about half being tobacco budworms, which can't be controlled effectively with low-cost options. Many of our growers had to scale up to the higher cost controls this year to get budworms on their second application.”

Buehring says this season one grower reported a $24 per acre average treatment cost to control worms on conventional cotton lines and still was not confident he was through protecting the crop.

“That farmer was pleased with his FM 800B2R variety and wished he had been able to book more seed.”

Tough decision

Buehring says changing pest pressures and unpredictable weather patterns make the decision tough for Coastal Bend farmers. And, as with all on-farm production strategies, it boils down to looking hard at yield potential, production costs and the ability to treat problems in a timely, effective manner. He says some farmers may want to plant a portion of their acreage in Bollgard varieties.

The complexities underscore the need for farmers to know their business, inside and out. Prince credits his wife for her abilities with bookkeeping. “She finds places to save money,” he says. “And she says that going back to brown bag seed next year is a key.”

Buehring says farmers like Prince figure both the savings from less expensive planting seed they can raise as well as eliminating tech fees and using some of the new herbicides to control weeds at a lower cost.

“By using planting seed they have grown from conventional varieties the previous season, they may capture an additional $15 to $20 per acre savings. But acres seeded from farmer - grown seed are not eligible for variety identity and value-added market enhancement programs like the recently introduced Certified FiberMax Cotton.”

As Prince was finishing up the 2004 crop he had to be somewhat philosophical about the futility of trying to outwit the weather. He was hoping for a final rain or two to fill out the cotton he'd already coddled through some stressful wet periods. And he was keeping watch on pests, especially bollworms.

“We've seen a lot of egg lay and we'll keep close watch. I haven't seen any worms yet, but we've kept it clean so far and we don't want to lose it now.”

Prince says in spite of the weather problems some of his cotton, “has as much yield potential as it did last year (a record crop for Nueces County). We made some two-bale cotton last year.”

e-mail: [email protected]

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