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Technology – The Future Of Cotton

Looking Ahead

Technology Gives U.S. Cotton
Important Advantage

By Tommy Horton

No matter how the future is viewed for U.S. cotton, one consistent fact remains clear. Technology, in many ways, will keep the producer profitable and help him compete in an increasingly competitive global market.

Obviously, factors persist that a producer can’t control, such as global economic downturns, low prices and a barrage of trade issues that never seem to go away.

But technology, with all of its promise, is what gives every segment of the industry a reason to hope for better days. It’s easy to see how far cotton production has come since the mule-and-plow days, but it’s all the more remarkable to view the advances made in the last 10 to 20 years.

For example, it was only 13 years ago that Bt cotton was introduced to the industry. To many, that seems like a lifetime ago.

Diversity Of Technologies

As many experts have stated recently, the word “technology” is loosely used in conversations. Many persons automatically think of GPS and complex precision ag equipment when they discuss technology.

In fact, technology comes in all shapes and sizes, and some of it is often taken for granted during the course of a long crop season. True, it may be that technology is what gives the U.S. cotton producer an advantage over his competitors.

However, as National Cotton Council agronomist Bill Robertson points out, the more compelling argument might be how are producers utilizing current technology tools as opposed to what might be “coming down the pike.”

“We just can’t expect everything that takes us into the future will be new technology,” says Robertson. “What might be more important is can we fine-tune existing technology and production practices?”

Robertson likes to tell the story of a farmer in southeast Arkansas who was trying to improve his irrigation system by adjusting the water flow rate using the Phaucet program with the help of University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture engineer Phil Tacker. The farmer thought it might be a complicated procedure involving different numbers and size of holes in his poly-pipe.

What it amounted to was a simple adjustment that the farmer could implement, and it increased his water efficiency by 25 percent.

“In this farmer’s mind, he turned $4 diesel into $3 diesel,” Robertson says. “That’s what I mean about fine-tuning simple technology. It definitely makes a difference.”

Exciting Future For Cotton

Don’t get the wrong idea about Robertson’s feelings on precision ag technology or cottonseed germplasm with drought-tolerant and nitrogen-use efficiency traits coming down the road.

Those impending breakthroughs excite him just as they would any cotton research scientist. He’s simply trying to win the technology battle on a couple of fronts.

First, he wants existing technology to remain as efficient as possible. Second, he hopes for good expertise in managing any future technology.

“It will be a daunting challenge to get our money out of this,” he says. “But this kind of technology is what gives us an advantage over the rest of the world. Once we deliver it to our farmers, we’ll find even better ways to use it.”

While there are skeptics who worry that other countries now have access to the same technology that U.S. farmers have had for several years, Robertson still thinks there is reason for optimism. In his view, the U.S. cotton industry is better equipped to support new technology for the long haul than its competitors.

Having said that, he’s plainly aware that India, for example, has increased its cotton production by 70 percent in the past five years after gaining access to Bt technology. The country, once a major importer of cotton, is now one of the United States’ largest competitors.

“When I see statistics like that, I just happen to think that the bar is raised for us here in the United States,” he adds. “I still think we’ll be in a better position to take advantage of the more specific technology being developed.”

“Some of our competitors won’t be able to do what we can do in that area. Ultimately, that will put more money into our farmers’ pockets.”

A Realistic View

If anything, Robertson is a realist when it comes to the future of U.S. cotton. While he knows that these new technology tools will enhance the producer’s chances to improve yield and fiber quality, he also sees the flip side of the equation.

For example, he knows there are farmers who don’t necessarily focus on future trends.

“There are plenty of farmers who are more worried about getting a crop loan approved for ‘09,” says Robertson. “They’re not worried about what’s going to happen in 2015.

“Those same farmers also might have low budgets and don’t think they can take advantage of technology. But there’s room for everybody when it comes to this production tool.”

Consistent Need For Technology

No matter how difficult the current economic environment becomes for cotton, some industry leaders believe now is the time to take advantage of technology.

Ed Barnes, director of ag research at Cotton Incorporated, believes this is the purpose of having technology tools – to maintain profitability during economic downturns.

“Our economists tell us that when we’re in a low price, high input environment, that’s when you need technology more than ever,” he says. “If cotton were priced at $3 a pound and fertilizer cost 20 cents a pound, anybody out there could survive in this environment. My advice is to embrace the technology.”

By surviving, Barnes means that there are innovative ways for farmers to cut costs by taking advantage of existing technology – such as a lower nitrogen application.

He’s also a big proponent of soil testing to look at fertility levels. In fact, Barnes has studied yield maps from across the country and believes there are opportunities to reduce inputs by 30 percent while increasing yields at the same time.

“If you figure there is a 30 percent yield variation in your field, that also means there is a 30 percent variation in your input needs,” says Barnes. “When I see that data, I know there are opportunities to cut costs.”

Increasing Yields Is The Goal

Combining cost-saving management practices with the possibility of dramatically increasing yields is a reachable target from Barnes’ perspective.

When he first heard Monsanto researchers talking about the possibility of doubling U.S. cotton yields in 10 years, it definitely seemed possible – mainly because of how far cotton production has progressed in the last 25 years.

“When you work in research, sometimes you don’t think we’re getting anywhere,” says Barnes. “But when you step back and think about how far we’ve come in 25 years, we’ve already doubled yields. If the technology hadn’t been accelerating so fast, I might’ve laughed at that Monsanto comment. However, I think we can pull it off now.”

New Developments In California

Precision farming and adoption of technology apparently is what will sustain a smaller California cotton industry. That’s the word from Dan Munk, a cotton production systems farm advisor with California (UC) Cooperative Extension in Fresno.

Although cotton acres have dropped dramatically in the last few years, Munk believes a smaller industry can still remain viable if efficiencies are found in several production areas. Those areas would include better irrigation, adoption of precision ag and better seed varieties.

“We already see some of our growers starting to use drip and overhead irrigation and move away from furrow or flood irrigation,” says Munk.

Besides new approaches to irrigation, California producers are embracing conservation tillage practices that will help reduce primary and secondary tillage in insect control and defoliation costs. The industry also is seeing increases in acres that have precision application of insecticides and defoliants to help manage costs.

“All of these things are pointing toward improving our bottom line,” says Munk. “If we can make these technologies work, it will help California sustain its cotton production.”

No matter what part of the Belt is examined – Southeast, Mississippi Delta, Texas High Plains or San Joaquin Valley – adoption of new technology is increasing.

It’s reaping benefits now – and potentially even more in the immediate future.

Contact Tommy Horton at thorton@onegrower.com or by telephone at (901) 767-4020.

Genetically Engineered Cotton
Continues To Increase

• Bt cotton planted on 68 percent of acreage in U.S. in ‘08.
• Varieties with stacked traits increased from 20 to 45 percent.
• More than 280 million acres of GE crops planted worldwide.
• U.S. accounts for 50 percent of all GE crops in the world.
• Impact of GE crops varies, depending on various factors.

Source: USDA’s Economic Research Service


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