Cotton Links

Did Acreage Shifts Teach
Us Anything?

By Tommy Horton

It all started two years ago when a huge number of cotton acres were shifted to corn and soybeans. Longtime cotton producers were faced with a choice. Chase some lucrative commodity prices or regret it later on.

It’s not as if cotton producers didn’t know how to grow corn, soybeans or even wheat. Corn and soybeans have always been a part of many producers’ crop mix – especially a corn-cotton rotation program.

The good news for cotton producers is two-fold. The acreage shifts have helped them better understand the soil profile of a farm’s total acreage. Plus, the situation forced them into becoming more efficient in all aspects of their overall operation.

Even with the prospect of cotton acreage increasing this year and into 2010, most agronomists say producers will continue to reap the benefits of a more meticulous style of managing several crops.

“The entire approach to these crops has forced everyone to be total farmers and monitor all facets of their operation,” says Wayne Ebelhar, research professor and agronomist at the Delta Research and Extension Center in Stoneville, Miss.

“The acreage shifts have forced farmers to be very selective on what crops they’ll plant on their best land. It’s all about maximizing a farmer’s income with a good crop mix.”

Corn-Cotton Rotation Works

For many years Ebelhar has preached the importance of a good corn-cotton rotation. The benefits are numerous – less soil compaction, more organic residue, nematode control, better water infiltration and enhanced nutrient activity – and they prove to be significant every year.

Now because of those aforementioned attractive prices for corn and soybeans, farmers have learned how to take advantage of rotation while increasing overall farm revenue. It’s the best of both worlds, according to Ebelhar.

Other dramatic changes have occurred in farm management because of the acreage shifts. Soybeans, often relegated to the lowest yielding acreage, are now being planted on better land.

“This crop was always the proverbial stepchild on the farm,” Ebelhar says. “In the old days, the cotton and corn were planted, and then the last seed to go into the ground was for soybeans.

“Now soybeans are managed as a principal crop because of better prices. This trend is continuing.”

Again, it all comes back to production potential. As Ebelhar views the alternatives, if a producer is making $60 per bushel on soybean acreage at $10 per acre, that’s $600 per acre in income. Production costs are also helped by the fact that nitrogen usually doesn’t have to be applied.

Soil Sampling Is Crucial

Other factors also must be observed in analyzing the last two years. For example, soil testing is now a necessity as corn, cotton and soybeans are moved to different acreage on the farm.

This production practice can help a producer better understand nutrient levels. Ebelhar likens it to the building blocks or foundation needed to construct a building. No plant – cotton, corn or soybeans – can survive without the necessary foundation that enhances a plant’s uptake. Therefore, it’s critical that soil samples be taken regularly to monitor these changing nutrient levels.

“We have definitely shown that one of the benefits of these acreage shifts and crop rotations is the buildup of organic material,” says Ebelhar. “When you do that, you also increase the water-holding capacities of the soil, and reduce the nitrogen needs of a crop.”

As mentioned earlier, the Mississippi agronomist has long advocated the benefits of a cotton-corn rotation and its numerous benefits.

“We’ve also learned that corn behind soybeans is better than continuous corn,” he says. “And we know that soybeans behind corn is better than continuous soybeans.”

The bottom-line conclusion?

Even though some parts of the Cotton Belt still reflect a continuous cotton monoculture production practice, Ebelhar believes that style of farming will decrease across the Belt.

He doesn’t discount or minimize the success of some farmers who continue to plant cotton behind cotton each year. For example, Missouri producer Charles Parker (featured in April Cotton Farming) has implemented such a practice for nearly 20 years with great success.

“Charles is able to plant continuous cotton because he’s far enough north to avoid serious insect pressure,” says Ebelhar. “Everything is working in his favor up there. He’s in the perfect situation.”

Location Affects Conditions

Farther south in the Mississippi Delta, the insect pressure is heavier in late summer. However, that region has shown remarkable resiliency in growing corn. This year, total corn acreage in Mississippi will be in the 600,000 to 700,000 acre range.

Aside from perfect conditions – like those found on Charles Parker’s farm – Ebelhar is convinced that many producers learned a lot in the last two years about how cotton, corn and soybean production can benefit all crops on the same farm.

“In the long run, it’s all about quality and producing the best yields on the best land,” he says. “That’s the key to profitability.”

Another fact has become clear in the acreage shifts of the past two years. Each region of the Cotton Belt varies in its production management style.

For example, the Southeast area – primarily in Georgia – continues to rely on a cotton-peanut rotation even during the past two years when corn and soybean prices increased.

Glen Harris, Extension agronomist based in Tifton, Ga., says it is the most beneficial rotation program for farmers in the state.

“This is the rotation that works for us, and we have pretty much stayed with it – even during the last two years,” he says. “We tried increasing corn a few years ago, and it’s a good rotation crop, but it’s not always the most economical rotation crop in our region.”

Reluctant To Make Switch

As for being tempted by the soaring grain prices of the past two years, Harris says Georgia farmers decided not to make the switch. They weren’t eager to plant soybeans because that crop doesn’t work well with peanuts from a disease standpoint.

For these reasons, the regional considerations of the Southeast didn’t translate into major acreage shifts. In fact, the term “diversified rotation” in this area has more relevance to vegetable crops such as tomatoes, peppers, watermelons and vidalia onions.

“Our situation is just different from other regions in the Belt,” says Harris. “Did we learn anything when the big acreage switches occurred a couple of years ago? What we learned just reinforced what we’ve been doing with cotton and peanuts all along.”

The statistics on Georgia cotton production reinforce Harris’ comments. During the past 15 years, cotton production has gone from 500,000 bales to 1.5 million bales, and this year’s estimate will be slightly under one million.

While peanut production will be down by about 30 percent this year because of the salmonella problem and record yields across the Peanut Belt in 2008, Harris is proud that cotton is continuing to maintain a strong base throughout the state.

“Our farmers have shown amazing resiliency,” he says. “We either have blind faith in cotton and peanuts, or we know something that other folks don’t know. We’re sticking with what works for us.”

Praying For Rain

In other regions, such as the Southwest, weather and soil types influence how farmers decide to shift acres or implement a rotation program.

Cotton producer Doug Wilde of San Angelo, Texas, will plant 4,000 acres this year (3,000 irrigated and 1,000 dryland). He’ll also have a smaller field of corn. He and his father manage a family operation that had some corn and grain sorghum included in the crop mix last year, but weather will dictate their plans this year.

Until recent rains occurred across the state, most of Texas had dry conditions in the fall, winter and spring. That kind of weather limits how much acreage shifting or rotation can be implemented on the Wilde farm.

“We had a little bit of grain sorghum acreage last year, but we’re pretty much going back to more cotton this year,” says Doug. “We can make 200- bushel corn, but we need average to above-average rainfall and good irrigation water.”

Wilde says if farmers were able to lock in high soybean and corn prices during the last two years, “it probably worked out OK.”

The young Texas farmer agrees with his counterparts in the Mid-South and Southeast that the past two years were beneficial for learning more about the soil profile of their land. But the high input costs had a major impact on profits – especially as it related to expenditures on diesel.

“We just need to watch every dollar we spend,” says Wilde. “You don’t want to jump out there too far no matter how attractive prices get for these other crops.”

That means cotton will once again be the major crop in his part of Texas. As observers often say, “The more things change in the Lone Star State...the more they stay the same.”

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

Soybean Acres To Increase For 2009 Crop Season

U.S. farmers are expected to plant slightly more soybean acres and less corn, compared to a year ago, according to a key government report.

USDA has released the results of its March 1 survey of farmers’ planting intentions, along with the quarterly grain stocks report of March 1. The planting numbers provide a first look at farmers’ plans for the crop year and also reflect the first official USDA report for the 2009 growing year.

Farmers are planning to plant 76 million acres of soybeans this year, up less than one percent from last year. The report also suggests that farmers intend to plant 85 million acres of corn, down a little more than one percent from 2008. Cotton acreage is anticipated at 8.8 million acres, down seven percent, while wheat acreage is expected to come in at 58.6 million acres, also down seven percent compared to 2008.

Officials note that lower crop prices and higher costs for inputs, including fertilizer and seed, are affecting overall acreage estimates.

Benefits of Diversified Rotation

• Utilizing best land for top crops.
• Good results from soil testing.
• Improved farm efficiency.
• Meticulous management.
• Decreased monoculture practice.


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