Cotton adds valuable rotation for big wheat country farmers

Cotton, now growing in counties north and west of Enid, Okla., for the first time since the 1950s, provides a rotation crop that works well with wheat. Farmers growing cotton for the first time in several decades in what is typically known as big wheat country, are excited about the potential.

Greg Heath, who farms near Canton with his brother, Paul, sees a lot to like in cotton.

“We started no-till farming six years ago,” Greg said. “We were looking for a crop that would work with wheat in a no-till culture. We found two crops that are heat and drought tolerant — sunflowers and cotton.

“We decided to go with cotton because it is a more stable crop, insurable, traded on the board of trade. It is a basic commodity, as old as time itself.”

Greg's father had been the last of the family to grow cotton, back in 1955, and the boll weevils wiped it out. Since then, a national boll weevil eradication program has almost stopped the weevil problem. Producers gin cotton in Anthony, Kan.

The Heath brothers had the unenviable position of planting their first cotton crop in the middle of the worst drought on record for the Southern Plains. But the dryland acreage they planted in the North Canadian River bottoms — where subsoil moisture is higher — will “yield a bale per acre,” on good dryland cotton any year, Greg said. In a year of extreme drought, it is outstanding.

The Heaths were not unscathed by the drought. They planted 300 acres of cotton. “Two hundred acres looks pretty good,” Greg said. “The rest had less than an inch of rain all season and it will be harvestable, but only barely.”

Although they are waiting on harvest, the Heaths intend to grow more cotton in 2007. “We probably will plant 400 to 600 acres next year,” Greg said. “We're looking for a reliable crop to work into our wheat and stocker cattle operation.”

Each year the brothers plant around 900 acres of wheat to graze out with stocker cattle and farm another 2,000 acres of cropland.

Over at Fairview, Matt Gard, a member of the Oklahoma State University 2005 farmer leadership class, also is searching for a rotation crop with soybeans, a crop his family has grown for years.

Gard suffered from the drought, receiving only 6.3 inches of rain on his home farm since August 2005. He planted some dryland cotton that burned up. Two circles of center pivot irrigated cotton did much better. “Two different agronomists have looked at one circle,” he said, “and they predict it will yield 3 to 4 bales per acre.”

Gard grows wheat, milo, soybeans and cotton. He also does a lot of custom farming, planting fall and spring crops and harvesting hay for client farmers.

In 2005, Gard, with the OSU farmer leadership program, visited southwest Oklahoma, historically a top cotton-growing area. In Jackson County, Gard learned about cotton production from such people as J. C. Banks, OSU Extension state cotton specialist; the late Miles Karner, OSU Extension state entomologist; and Charles Abernathy, an Altus, Okla., farmer, who, at that time, was president of the Plains Cotton Cooperative Association.

“They showed us different cotton management systems and put the desire in our minds to try the crop up here,” he said.

Heath and Gard, along with several other top farmers, were encouraged to try growing cotton when they attended producer meetings held by farmer/owners of the Southern Kansas Cotton Growers Cooperative located at Winfield and Anthony, Kan.

Kansas' farmers have grown cotton successfully for several years now and have several large, modern cotton gins along the Kansas-Oklahoma state line.

Gary Feist, manager of the Southern Kansas Cotton Growers gin at Anthony, with an agronomist employed by the cooperative, held a series of producer meetings at Fairview and Canton in 2005 and early 2006 to encourage farmers to try cotton as a viable rotation crop with wheat.

“We are excited that a lot of top farmers north and east of Enid, in northern Grant County and in the Fairview, Canton and Okeene areas, decided to try cotton for the first time,” Feist said. “We are the closest modern cotton gin for these farmers.”

Feist expects to gin at least 45,000 bales this season.

“We think cotton will work for farmers in this area of north central Oklahoma,” Feist said. “The drought up here has left us with little or no rain for many months. We probably won't have much wheat pasture and the milo crop suffered from the heat and dry weather. Farmers who have been watching their neighbors grow cotton for four or five years, successfully in spite of this drought, are beginning to realize they aren't doing it for their health.”

Feist said a milo crop was a disaster for one of his customers. “He has his first crop of cotton this year and will make 400 to 500 pounds, a bale of lint per acre. He may give up on milo and go to a wheat and cotton rotation.”

Feist said advantages of cotton include drought and heat tolerance, high yields from modern transgenic varieties with protection against weeds and worms and freedom from the boll weevil.

“Just as important,” he said, “cotton is a recognized crop by the USDA. It is a basic crop grown under a farm program, has crop insurance protection and is traded on several boards of trade.”

Feist said farmers are trying several other crops across the Plains States to find one that will be a big hitter in rotation with wheat, grain sorghum, soybeans and corn in both dryland and irrigated cultures. They've tried sunflower, safflower and canola at different times and different places. He said cotton offers a viable opportunity for farmers simply because it can be grown, harvested, processed, stored and sold in a stable and predictable environment.

These are important considerations that have yet to be worked out with the other crops, he said. “Both Kansas State University and Oklahoma State University are working diligently to establish canola as a workable crop for this area,” he said. “I think if they work just as hard to establish cotton here, we would have to build more cotton gins.”

NTOK is a cotton industry partnership, which encourages increased cotton production in the Rolling Plains of North Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas.

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