As 2021 Begins, Cotton Consultants Share Their Thoughts
• By Carroll Smith,
Cotton Farming recently conducted a question-and-answer session with several of the past recipients of the Cotton Consultant of the Year award. They included Eddy Cates (2019), Tucker Miller (2004), Paul Pilsner (2017), Jack Royal (2006) and Mark Scott (2018). Here is a synopsis of their responses.
Q Looking back, what comes to mind as one or more of the “bright spots” of the 2020 cot-
A Eddy Cates, Cates Agri Tech Services Inc., consults in Northeast Arkansas: Although it was hot and dry last year, we have irrigation on about 85% of our ground. Because center-pivot irrigation was hard to keep up with, being able to furrow irrigate was definitely the bright spot.
A Tucker Miller, Miller Entomological Service Inc., consults in the Mississippi Central Delta: Our insect pressure wasn’t even normal last year. It was below normal so that was a bright spot. And even though a couple of hurricanes came through our area, we dodged a lot of damage since there was no wind and no heavy rain.
A Paul Pilsner, Pilsner Consulting, consults in the Texas Upper Coastal Bend: This past season was a good one for us along the coast. The cotton was above average, and the prices came up. My guys made some money, and they paid me, so that was good!
A Jack Royal, Royal’s Agricultural Consulting Co. Inc. consults in Southwest Georgia: 2020 was not super bright for us. But overall, we had light worm pressure and low stink bug numbers.
A Mark Scott, Mark Scott Crop Consulting, consults in the Texas Southern High Plains: We started out with good water in our soil profile, then didn’t receive any rain the rest of the season.
It was a hot, dry year, and we are in a severe drought right now. Our area is dependent on rainfall and uses supplemental irrigation where we have water to support it. One bright spot was no insect pressure because there wasn’t anything for them to eat!
Some of my farmers loaded up their water on a small acreage and had a pretty good crop. I did have some 3-bale cotton this year, but not much. The only bright spot to me was that harvest season was nice.
It was so dry we could start running strippers at 9 in the morning. Humidity was really low and conditions were extremely dry, so we were able to get the crop out quickly.
Q What topics are you and your farmers discussing during your winter planning sessions?
A Cates: We are concentrating on varietal selection. So far, we’ve been fortunate in not having to spray a lot of the more expensive insecticides for bollworms in Northeast Arkansas.
But now, worm pressure seems to be increasing south of us. We need to move on to the Bollgard 3 varieties and newer technology. We are trying to choose the ones that will work best for us.
A Miller: We’ve been planting Bollgard II varieties in the past. Our standard was DP 1646 B2XF. We have been looking for Bollgard 3 varieties that would yield right in there with it. Two of the new Deltapine varieties look really good, so we will be transitioning to Bollgard 3 now that we have some options.
We also planted a lot of cover crops this past fall. Normally, we’ve just been piddling with them. Now we have a lot of acres planted to cover crops that we will be planting into next season. Varieties and cover crops have been our main topics of discussion this winter.
APilsner: My farmers are trying to decide on their crop mix for 2021. Prices on all crops are looking better than we have seen in a long time. The export markets also appear to be breaking back open. If they do, there will be a huge demand for many of our crops. I know the demand is there for high-quality cotton.
As far as varieties, we are staying with some of the ones we have gotten comfortable with. But we are also discussing how to manage the new varieties and trying to choose the right fields to put them in. We have good subsoil moisture now, but a few areas will need a rain before March.
ARoyal: Last year, our cotton acres were down. Now, with the price of cotton and corn going up, my growers and I are trying to decide how many acres to plant of each crop. For cotton, that will depend on what the price does between now and planting season. We also are working on variety selection.
AScott: In our planning sessions, we are looking at the price of the crop and discussing each grower’s water situation. We are trying to tailor variety selection to each one of their fields. We also are trying to select varieties that might do better than others with less water.
We also are talking about fertility and realistic yield goals given the drought conditions we are experiencing right now. We will try to tailor management practices according to what kind of yield potential we have.
We are reviewing the disease complex on each field and determining where we have problems with root-knot and reniform nematodes. That information will affect our variety selections.
We are considering how stormproof each variety is, too. How tight the lint is in the bur, which can help the plant withstand the hailstorms we get.
QWhat effect, if any, did the COVID-19 pandemic have on the way you conducted your
consulting business in 2020?
ACates: We emailed most of our scouting reports to our clients or discussed them over the phone instead of meeting in person. We tried to stay out in the open instead of meeting in our offices. Everybody was respectful and kept their distance.
The pandemic also affected the number of people we put in our trucks and how we traveled to and from fields. We washed our hands a lot and kept hand sanitizer and gloves available in case they were needed.
AMiller: We wore masks if we had to go into someone’s office to talk things over. One of my workers was exposed to the virus when his sister contracted it. We made him ride in the truck by himself for about 10 days. So far, he is still healthy.
We all had letters stating we are essential workers. We carried them around with us in our trucks in case anybody needed that information.
We emailed most of our scouting reports instead of delivering them in person. But, for the most part, just the nature of our job is a pretty good way to socially distance.
APilsner: The main way the pandemic affected my business was not being able to have in-person meetings. We had some Zoom meetings and phone meetings, l but I missed the personal interaction with my clients and people in the industry.
ARoyal: Since we are typically out in the field by ourselves, the pandemic didn’t affect my business that much. The thing that affects me the most is that we are having virtual meetings now. The Beltwide is virtual this year, and we’ll probably have fewer in-person consultant meetings with industry.
AScott: I like to sit down with my farmers and have a good planning session with them before the season starts. Last year, we had to do a lot of our planning over the phone instead. When I was in the field with one of my farmers, it was understood that “you stay in your pickup truck, and I will stay in mine.”
We just talked through the windows or talked on the phone. We also couldn’t go to educational meetings in person. I missed interacting with other people. Even this year, both the Beltwide and the NAICC meetings are virtual.
QWhat are you most optimistic about going into the upcoming cotton season?
ACates: All of our crop prices are moving up — cotton, corn and soybeans. I am optimistic about prices looking much more favorable than they have been in the past.
AMiller: Now that we have five more years of dicamba, I am optimistic about that. And the Bollgard 3 trait should lower our insecticide costs where we were spraying Bollgard II cotton twice for worms with a high-dollar insecticide. We should catch a break there.
I’m optimistic that our cotton acres may be up in the area where I consult. If the price gets up there and farmers have the equipment to plant, I believe we will see an increase. My farmers have all their land ready, so we will see what happens when planting season gets here.
APilsner: When you see crop prices stabilize like they are right now, farming gets to be a lot more fun. We are mostly dryland, and we have good soil moisture. I am optimistic about that. It won’t take very many rains to make some crops this year.
Corpus is missing a little moisture around the top, but the soil profile is full all the way to College Station. I’m also excited about how much better satellite imagery is. It’s much more useful than it has been in the past.
ARoyal: The thing I am most optimistic about regarding the 2021 cotton season is that prices are improving.
AScott: Where we fertilized pretty heavily for a good cotton crop last year, we didn’t take too much out of the soil. We have a little bit of fertility in reserve now. That’s one good thing. Although it’s tough to be positive in a drought year, I always try to be.
When you farm on the Texas High Plains, you have to be resilient. We’ve been through droughts before, and my farmers can get through it again. They know you have to roll with the punches and come back when things are good.