On a crop that probably won't make a profit

Lower Rio Grande Valley cotton growers are having to make tough decisions about how much money to spend on a crop that probably won't bring a profit, agricultural experts say.

“Our growers are in a very difficult situation right now,” said John Robinson, agricultural economist at the Texas A&M Agricultural Research and Extension Center at Weslaco.

“Cotton futures prices are at or below 50 cents per pound, about 20 cents lower than breakeven for most growers, and the forecasts don't look promising,” he said.

“Consequently, growers have to evaluate their situations very carefully to make sure that any money they spend on their crops will either increase or save enough yields to recover the cost of that input.”

Initial costs for planting cotton, easily the area's largest acreage crop, are fixed, Robinson said. These include the cost of seed, land use, land preparation and equipment purchases and repairs. But as the crop matures, growers must decide if and when they'll spend money on in-season, variable expenses such as fertilizers, insecticides and irrigations.

“Because prices are so low,” he said, “growers can't rely on their tried-and-true recipe methods of producing a good crop. There's a tradeoff between cost and return.”

How much a crop will bring at the end of a season depends on market prices, fiber quality and yield. But thanks plant mapping, growers can estimate with some degree of accuracy how much their crop will be worth.

In simplified terms, plant mapping involves inspecting a number of plants in a field to determine fruit position and fruit load to help evaluate the maturity of a field and to forecast yield.

“If you know how many more weeks of growing you're looking at and a good estimate of the yield being produced, it's easier to determine whether it's worth it to spend × amount of dollars per acre on insecticides or fertilizers or even water,” said Robinson.

Based on yield information collected in the Valley last year by two Extension agronomists, Charles Stichler and Leo Espinosa, half the cotton lint yield was located in the bottom third of a plant, 44 percent came from the middle third, with only a small portion coming from the top portion of a plant.

“Knowing this tells you that it's wasted money to spend $12 an acre on insecticide sprays to protect lint in the top of the plant that is only worth $10 an acre,” said Robinson.

Robinson and others at the ag center in Weslaco have developed various tables and formulas to help growers make input decisions.

“Each decision has to be made on its own merits,” he said, “and we're ready to assist in any way we can. In addition to these tables, we've also got the more complex COTMAN computer program that we can use to help growers make some of these decisions between now and harvest time later this summer.”

Rod Santa Ana III, is a Texas A&M Extension information specialist

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