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- PRODUCTION -

Loyalty To Cotton Remains Strong
  

By Mike Danna

 
Craig Keyes knows who butters his bread. “As a producer, I’ve got a lot of loyalty to cotton,” he says. “With this kind of investment at stake, you’ve got to be.”

If nothing else, his equipment shed is a testament to that loyalty. Three new John Deere 4720 spray rigs, a host of tractors and, soon to be added, two new six-row cotton pickers to accommodate his 12-row operation.

“There are plenty of cotton pickers out there this year,” Keyes jokes. “I shouldn’t have any trouble finding some.”

For Keyes, cotton continues to be the natural choice in his farming operation in Tensas Parish, self-proclaimed buckle of the Louisiana Cotton Belt. In 2006, he put every one of his more than 5,000 acres into cotton – Roundup Ready Flex varieties, mostly – D&PL 163 and 164, Stoneville 4357, 4554 and 6611 and United Ag Products’ Dyna-Gro 2520.

But like most cotton producers, the tug of higher grain prices was a little too strong. So, Keyes shifted to corn. In addition to his 3,200 acres of cotton, he grew 2,200 acres of corn in the clay soils of northeast Louisiana. It wasn’t his first time planting corn, but 2007 saw much higher prices than the last time he went looking for a custom cutter.

“We planted corn six years ago, but cotton is the only thing that seems to pay the bills,” the 46-year-old Keyes says. “After 20 crops I know where the bread and butter is.”

And this was a year that bread, butter and paying the bills was of utmost importance. His father Delton retired, and the younger Keyes paid for daddy’s retirement.

“Had I gone with all cotton I would have had to borrow a lot more money, and it’s just something I didn’t want to do,” Craig continues. “I wanted something in my rotation, and corn worked well.”

His cotton returned close to 1,100 pounds per acre. As for corn, Keyes admits he didn’t get the high yields other farmers bagged in 2007. He averaged about 125 bushels to the acre, attributing it to his lack of “high quality seed like some of these other boys got who’ve been growing corn for years.”

But the corn did do wonders for a balance sheet that is now his responsibility and his alone. Despite his move to corn in 2007, Keyes says he plans to opt for 4,500 acres in cotton this year, with just 700 acres in corn.

“Hopefully, the corn acres will put fuel in my new pickers,” he says.

Do The Math

To some in the industry the shift to grains in 2007 was simple economics. Remember the flexibility that the new farm law was supposed to provide? Behold.

For cotton producers who made the shift to grains, the balance sheet tells the story. For those who process cotton, the balance sheet also tells the story, albeit one with a less happy ending. And for those who promote cotton and follow its trends, they find themselves somewhere in the middle.

“Talking to growers here in Georgia, I think the No. 1 thing on their minds is the overwhelming increase in the costs of production,” says Dr. Don Shurley, professor of ag economics at the University of Georgia. “Our prices are much improved, if you want to call them high, across the board. But that doesn’t tell the whole story.”

Comparatively, cotton has always been an expensive crop, one that producers, at least in the past, made an investment in and stuck with. But Shurley says other factors, beyond $11 soybeans, $8 wheat and $4 corn, led to cotton’s tremendous decline in acres.

“We’ve also got $3 diesel, and fertilizer is going through the roof,” Shurley adds.

Can The Infrastructure Hang On?

At the United Ag Products elevator in the town of Wisner, La., the sun gleams off corrugated metal. The UAP bins held some 6.5 million bushels of grain last season, three times its normal capacity.

“It’s the largest grain crop we’ve ever handled at this elevator,” says Kevin Harper, manager of the facility. “I’ve talked to many cotton farmers who, for the first time, bought combines this year.”

Cotton warehouses in Winnsboro (Franklin Parish) stored more grain last year than cotton. Corn “socks” dotted the landscape, and more than anyone, the ginners who operate the state’s 45 cotton gins felt the sting.

“There were two or three gins that didn’t operate this year because of the reduced volume,” says Dr. Kenneth Paxton, professor of production economics and farm management at Louisiana State University. “Others are anticipating that this will be temporary.”

But Paxton says a LSU AgCenter study does show cotton may make a slight rebound next year. Jess Barr, executive vice president of the Louisiana Cotton Producers Association, says overall cotton acres might remain at or near current levels in 2008.

“A lot of folks just aren’t that enamored with soybeans,” Barr says. “I don’t see a big drop in cotton. With December ‘08 cotton close to 80 cents, you’ll pull in some acres.”

Friends In High Places

To date, none of the presidential candidates seem to think much about U.S. agricultural policy. But that’s not to say agriculture still won’t have a voice in Washington, even now that the Farm Bill has been passed in Congress.

“Cotton farmers should remain encouraged about the outlook for cotton in the Farm Bill,” says Brian Breaux, cotton specialist with the Louisiana Farm Bureau Federation (LFBF). “Cotton still has friends like Senators Saxby Chambliss, Thad Cochran and many others in Congress. Experience has taught producers and industry leaders that the downturn in cotton acres is only temporary.”

Craig Keyes couldn’t agree more. However, his desire to keep growing cotton has nothing to do with cyclical factors, Congress or even price.

“We’re cotton farmers,” Keyes says. “My daddy always told me that if you get away from cotton, sooner or later you’ll go broke.”

Mike Danna is Louisiana Farm Bureau’s public relations director. Contact him at miked@lfbf.org or (225) 922-6200.
 


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