Specialists Speaking - February 2009
Make Smart Decisions Before Planting
Spring 2009 is a time of great indecision for many long-term producers. Input prices and variable crop prices have made the decision of what to grow more difficult than at any time in recent history. Producers had many options this time last year when almost any one of the row crops would pencil out a profit. However, profit potential went from very good to poor as 2008 progressed.
In this part of the Southeast, wheat acreage went away as compared to the fall of 2007-2008, which will mean a better chance that those acres may go into cotton. No peanut contracts are being offered at the present time, so producers may look at more cotton if the price continues to increase. Drought conditions in the early part of 2008 took out most of the dryland corn, which is sure to lead to less acreage this year except for irrigated acres.
Soybeans are a potential for many producers with the lower input prices and the recent price increases. Producers will have to make the decision soon because resistant Palmer amaranth and other weeds will have to be controlled in many of these fields. There are rotation restrictions with many of the preplant or burndown herbicides, so producers need to make a commitment soon.
Materials such as 2,4-D can be used for winter weeds and horseweed for many of the crops to be planted in 30 days or more. However, it will give no residual activity for the main summer weeds. Producers still need to consider rotation impacts on subsequent crop yields as well as weed resistance and profit potential for the crop to be grown. Cotton is sure to be grown in many areas and may pick up some of the peanut and corn acreage that will be reduced from 2008 levels.
Springtime is almost here and now is the time many important decisions regarding the 2009 crop will be made. Nematode management is one area that should be given some consideration now rather than later. The first step in managing nematodes is identification of the problem. The only way to identify accurately a nematode problem is through soil sampling. Once the problem has been identified, the next question becomes one of control.
Generally speaking, at-planting options including seed treatments (Avicta Complete or Aeris) or in-furrow (Temik) applications, should work well for low-to-moderate populations of nematodes. However, once populations begin to increase (5,000-plus reniform per pint), options such as a seed treatment or in-furrow application plus a foliar spray (Vydate) should be considered. When nematode populations reach levels where yields are severely restricted, fumigants are an option. However, due to high costs, it is imperative to determine that nematodes, and not other factors, are what is limiting yields in a given field.
Weed control is another important decision that should be considered carefully. For years, glyphosate has been the product of choice on burndown for most producers; however, as glyphosate-resistant horseweed has become more of a problem, many producers are beginning to utilize a growth regulator herbicide and/or a residual herbicide at burndown in addition to glyphosate.
Additionally, in-season weed control is becoming more complicated due to weed resistance, especially in growing areas in the north Delta. In light of these resistance problems, as well as the price of selected glyphosate formulations, the use of residual herbicides is becoming more attractive.
Fertilizer nitrogen (N) prices – although declining – still remain relatively high. Producers should carefully look over the results from experiment station N response trials for information on optimal N rates for maximum economic yield. In past years, it was not unusual to see fields that had excess N rates applied. Applying excess N not only increases input costs but also has detrimental effects on the crop and increases other management inputs.
Cotton is an efficient user of N; it is a perennial and has an extensive and deep root system (barring hardpans or nematodes) that is very efficient in finding the existing residual and organic N sources in the soil that are free. These free sources will supply the majority of the N needed by the cotton crop. Cotton also recycles N within the plant during the growing season. Lower leaves and fruiting forms that fall off from the lower part of the plant turn yellow before aborting because nutrients are reabsorbed back into the plant to be used a second time.
Many studies on Louisiana soils have identified the optimal rates that supply adequate fertilizer N. Surprisingly, regardless of the specific soil type or location, all silt loam soils in Louisiana need only about 75 pounds of applied N per acre for maximum economic yield. This is due to the fact that cotton is an excellent scavenger of soil N, but also because total N offtake levels are rather low.
The holidays are over, hunting season has ended and many wives are ready to kick their husbands back out into the fields. It’s no doubt that spring will be here before we know it and having a good game plan ready can make all the difference in 2009. Many producers may still be struggling to decide how much crop mixture to plant on their farms and where to put it. Consider field drainage, weed problems, fertility and nematode levels before making final decisions.
Cotton should be planted on the better ground with good drainage and higher fertility levels. With the high costs of mixed fertilizer, it is crucial to know the soil levels so fields where cotton and other crops will be planted can be cost-effectively fertilized. However, knowing your weed populations and nematode levels can help make the decisions easier.
If corn is in the crop mix, planting corn in fields where glyphosate-resistant Palmer amaranth (pigweed) is present is a good option because several corn herbicides have excellent control of pigweed. Corn is also an option where high populations of reniform nematodes are present. To the contrary, root-knot nematode populations that are prevalent in many Arkansas fields will most likely increase population in a corn rotation, thus making corn a bad option in these fields.
The bottom line is producers should know what problems may exist in all fields. Management of these problems by changing the crop mix is a possible way to increase profitability of multiple crops in rotation.
How many acres of cotton will be planted in Tennessee during 2009? To use a worn out phrase, “If I had a dollar for every time I have been asked that question, I would probably be a couple hundred dollars to the good.” My response has been, “Tell me what the price of cotton will be around mid-March, and, if we can get contracts then, I will tell you how many acres we will have.”
For the last two years when asked this question, I prognosticated no changes in acreage. The reality was a 28 percent decrease in 2007 and an additional 44 percent decrease in 2008. For many of our producers, soybean prices will have as much to do with cotton acres as the price of cotton will. In 2006, we set a state yield record for cotton with the most planted acres since 1953. In 2008, we produced our second highest yielding crop on the fewest planted acres since 1983. Needless to say, we can grow a profitable crop on a few acres or on many acres. Like everyone else around the Belt, we are waiting for prices to increase. According to our budgets, planting a Bollgard II Roundup Ready Flex crop with a yield goal of 850 pounds, we need a break even price of 69 cents per pound (not including counter-cyclical or direct payments).
As I look into my crystal ball for 2009, without movement in the market we will probably drop another 25-30 percent of our acres. Hopefully, my trend of bad predictions will continue, and we will see a big turnaround for cotton in the next 12 months.
Several north Alabama farmers have been using corn as a rotational crop to reduce yield losses of cotton grown in fields with high levels of reniform nematodes. This has worked very well because corn is not a host for reniform nematodes, and the corn/cotton rotation has returned cotton yields to their former levels. Many of these farmers have been in this rotation schedule close to 10 years. Recent soil
A corn variety screening study by Dr. Kathy Lawrence at Auburn University recently found no corn varieties that were resistant to root knot nematodes. It appears this rotation needs modification to reduce the buildup of root knot nematodes. Since peanuts are not grown in this part of the state, including wheat or soybean varieties resistant to root knot nematodes in the rotation may be the best solution at this time.
Plug the numbers into the spreadsheet. Look at the research. Check prices. It is crunch time for cotton farmers in south Georgia to figure out a way to make the numbers work. Unfortunately, this challenge is as big as ever, and the margin for error is small. That is why it is even more important to gather as much information as possible, from as many sources as possible, to make the most informed decisions on all aspects of growing and marketing the 2009 crop.
Talk to your seed companies, ginner, chemical companies, fertilizer dealer and, of course, your Extension agents and specialists. Some fertilizer materials have even come down in price, so it will pay to look around and keep checking prices. So work the budgets, fine tune the inputs and hope the yield goal you set, barring weather or other disasters, becomes a reality.
Even my agricultural economists admit that yield is a key factor. In fact, if you can work it to make even 10 percent more yield on 10 percent less input cost, it makes the bottom line look that much better. And that is what we need to take to the bank.
As I talk to many cotton producers, they are still undecided about the amount of cotton acreage they will have this coming year. Several have told me that they have learned their lessons with corn on sandier land. We often think of cotton as a drought-tolerant crop. Most folks attribute this to the tap root of cotton, which may be deeply rooted.
Unfortunately, in North Carolina, cotton is not particularly deep rooted due to hard pans and acidic subsoil. What makes cotton drought tolerant is that it sets fruit over a long period of time due to its indeterminate nature and perennial background. We all know we can really miss a corn crop with a week or two of hot dry weather at the wrong time.
Several producers have mentioned to me that they will maintain some level of cotton acreage because they feel like they need it for rotation purposes. With the increase in soybean acreage, we need to keep in mind that soybeans are not a good choice for rotation in cotton with sting, lesion or Columbia lance nematodes. Soybeans can be a good choice for fields with root-knot and reniform if resistant soybean varieties are used. Susceptible soybean varieties are not a good choice for rotation with cotton if these nematodes are present.
When you are making a budget for cotton, you need to keep in mind what value to use for cotton seed. In many years, we don’t even consider the cotton seed very strongly in budgets.