The outlook on cotton prices for the 2016 season still remains less than exciting. The saving grace for cotton may be that other commodity prices are not significantly better. This economic scenario requires that each input be scrutinized for its potential return on investment. This may not be the year to try something new that requires significant economic resources, particularly if there is no substantial evidence that the input is going to result in a net positive return.
There is no dearth of products out there that may significantly impact your crop in terms of potential yield increases. But, if the yield increase does not offset the investment in the material and the cost of application, this year may not be the year for making those purchases and investments. Conversely, in years of lean cotton prices, it is often investments in basic fertilizer needs that get trimmed first and typically in a significant fashion. I would warn against cutting back too much on your basic fertilizer investments as you may jeopardize the potential yield of the crop in a significant way. Additionally, crop stresses induced by poor nutrition management may result in increases in other stressors such as insect pressure. Instead of making a quick decision to cut back significantly on fertilizer inputs, plan on making fertility decisions based upon crop growth and development. Monitoring in-season crop growth for the potential demand for fertilizer through vigor and fruit load estimates is an inexpensive method for evaluating potential fertility needs. I will discuss this in more detail as we move into the season.
My message today is that we must do everything in our power to ensure that we optimize our profit margin by maximizing yield while attempting to minimize input costs. This is not an easy balance to obtain, but the current price situation demands that we make our best efforts toward this end.
I have been getting mixed signals about Missouri cotton acreage. The planting intentions indicate that acreage will increase due to low ending stocks. On the other hand, cotton prices may or may not increase. Since most of our cotton is grown for the export market, the higher dollar could reduce sales. The good news is that we grow high-quality cotton and have opportunities for foreign mills.
In addition to corn, soybean, cotton, wheat, watermelon and cantaloup, we now have increased acreage of grain sorghum. In our area, peanut acreage is increasing, too. In order to get increases in acreage for any of the crops, weather will be the determining factor for price increases. It usually takes a disaster somewhere to make changes in the market. The Texas drought is over. So cotton acreage there should increase. In Missouri, we are fortunate to have excellent irrigation potential. With our abundant groundwater and lower costs of pumping relative to other parts of the Cotton Belt, we are less susceptible to droughty conditions. Our producers can tap into county SWCDs and NRCS for cost-share assistance for irrigation.
One thing that producers have learned about herbicide-resistant weed control is that size matters. The smaller the weed, the easier it is to kill. We just need favorable weather conditions to better control the weeds, drift and volatilization.
In Virginia, the question is which of the three crops will gain or lose acreage among peanuts, cotton and soybeans. In the cotton-growing area, the lack of irrigation limits the number of corn acres. At the time of writing this article, no peanut contracts have been announced, though similar contracts to 2015 are expected. Price will dictate the battle for acres between soybeans and cotton. As of right now, neither commodity looks promising for 2016. Most believe that cotton acres will remain about 85,000 for Virginia, though planting intentions for producers vary depending on how the 2015 crop performed on their farms. Hopefully, by the time this article reaches you, there is better news on the horizon for Virginia cotton producers.
Another issue that has come to the forefront in Virginia is pollinator protection. Currently, the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services is holding stakeholder input meetings for the pollinator protection plan. I encourage all producers and beekeepers to share their input with VDACS as it develops the plan. For cotton, this is a big issue as cases have been filed against producers with VDACS involving beekeepers. The need for a science-based pollinator protection plan has reached critical mass for row crop producers in Virginia. I believe the pollinators and row crops can and must thrive side by side in Virginia, though both producers and beekeepers will need to compromise and work together.
The drier weather the first half of February made it possible for field work across most of the state to occur. Soil sampling, dirt pans putting fields to grade, fertilizer buggies in wheat and burndown or ground tillage going into rice and corn were common sights the week prior to Valentine’s Day.
The kickoff of cotton burndown programs and other weed control strategies for most farmers is just around the corner. Those who put in a cereal rye cover crop likely did so to improve soil health and help with pigweed control. The use of cover crops appears to be growing in Arkansas. Regardless of your cover crop or tillage program, technique and timeliness are key to the success of a burndown program. Temperature, weed size, weed stress, spray gallonage and droplet size are just a few of the considerations that can influence effectiveness. Programs should be timed well ahead of the planter to address issues related to the “green bridge,” which can facilitate movement of pests from a dying cover crop to an emerging crop.
Our immediate goal for the 2016 crop is to start with a good stand of healthy cotton. This requires the fields to be clean at planting. A timely and effective burndown program is our first step toward this goal. Contact your local county Extension agent for more information.
Cotton farmers have been attending winter meetings to get the latest information on crop varieties, management and other factors that could help with crop-mix decisions and how to make a profit during times of low prices. Farming is not as much fun with low prices, and it is risky to try new practices if they fail and result in lower yields. However, things like rotation, in-row subsoiling, timely nitrogen application, proper rates and choosing top-yielding varieties for the area often pay dividends.
Cotton variety information is available across the region and should be considered carefully. Varieties that have been developed recently have good yield potential and good fiber quality traits. Most states have both official variety trials and county trials that show how they do in small plots and under different farm management situations. This will be a year to consider each management practice closely to make a positive impact on the bottom line. Many farmers will still be watching for market movement between now and planting time to help them decide on crop mix and acreage on their farms.
We are going into the season with some folks not having been able to do the tillage they may have intended to, due to rain. We have looked at timing of spring strip-till for the past few years. The two timings we have compared have been two to three weeks prior to planting and at planting. We have seen greater early season growth with strip-till occurring two to three weeks prior to planting compared to strip-tillage at planting. Strip-till prior to planting also resulted in higher yields in some cases. In all other cases, the yields were equal. Timing strip-tillage operations two to three weeks prior to planting may also work out better with pre-plant herbicide applications, especially Valor.
Cotton planting is just around the corner in Louisiana, and now is a good time to review a few key practices to help everyone get off to a great start. It is always best to plant according to soil temperature and not the calendar. If a field is planted too early, your cotton crop may suffer a stand loss and cold temperature stress, which reduces yield potential.
Germination can begin when mean daily temperature is 60 degrees Fahrenheit at seeding depths, but growth will be slow at these temperatures. A soil temperature of 65 degrees F at a depth of 4 inches for three consecutive days and a favorable five-day forecast following planting is best. Also, nighttime minimum temperatures should be forecast to be more than 50 degrees F for the following five days. During the critical germination period, soil temperatures less than 50 degrees F can cause chilling injury to germinating cotton. Emergence will generally occur after accumulation of 50-80 DD60s or heat units after planting. Planting should be delayed if the five-day forecast predicts the accumulation of less than 25 heat units after planting. The minimum plant population in the final plant stand should be no less than two healthy plants per foot.
Creating a pest-free seedbed is critical to avoid problems from cutworms and spider mites. Pre-plant, burndown herbicide applications should be made at least four weeks prior to planting to ensure no green vegetation is in the field for these pests to survive. It is equally important to eliminate weedy host plants on field borders to reduce insect pest problems later on that might move into adjacent cotton fields.
Depending on the weather, cotton seeds could start going into the ground in the next four to six weeks in Mississippi. If U.S. Department of Agriculture projections as well as the buzz on the street stands true, cotton acres in Mississippi will likely increase by at least 40 percent in 2016 compared to 2015. Commodity markets are challenging in all crops in 2016; however, Mississippi growers have produced outstanding yields for the past three years.
Although weed control has been challenging over the past several years, Mississippi growers have done a remarkable job at keeping Palmer amaranth populations in cotton at bay. However, MSU Weed Scientists recently announced that PPO-resistant Palmer amaranth is present in our state. PPO herbicides include fomesafen, which has been a popular choice ahead of planting for Palmer amaranth control. If PPO-resistant Palmer amaranth is present in your field, you still may see some residual control from pre applications of fomesafen; however, the length of residual activity may be dramatically shortened. Feet in the field will pay dividends if a Palmer amaranth escape is caught early. If not caught early, you may return to your field and find the beginning stages of a train wreck.
Cover crop questions have begun to pick up in recent weeks. Many of these are related to termination timing and method to maximize their benefit while minimizing the potential negative impacts associated with the cover on the following cash crop. The good news is almost all of these practices have been evaluated in great detail in other areas of the country. Beginning in the mid 1990s, a tremendous amount of research was conducted by the USDA on using high-biomass cover crops within multiple production systems. Their efforts resulted in a sound approach to maximizing benefits while minimizing risks.
The best approach to suppressing weeds and achieving a consistent cash crop stand was to roll the high-biomass cover crop immediately before applying a terminating herbicide and then planting the cash crop into the crispy residue roughly two to three weeks later. Terminating at this date typically eliminated the green-bridge effect for insect pests, allowed the planter to consistently achieve the proper seeding depth and subsequently establish an adequate stand. This provided an opportunity for spring rains to re-charge the soil water reserve, which will likely be reduced by the winter cover, and maximize the time in which weeds are suppressed through the growing season by the cover crop. The bad news? As a collaborative group of agricultural scientists, we have an extremely limited dataset on multiple species mixes, especially with certain species of brassicas. Still, this past research should provide a starting point as we attempt to incorporate mixtures included in new programs into our production systems “on the fly.” To find links on the above-mentioned USDA research, check out our blog at news.utcrops.com.
This is my first article as the new Extension cotton agronomist for the Texas High Plains region. I am excited to be working in cotton in this region and to be surrounded by a great group of researchers, county agents and producers. I’m particularly excited about the opportunity to work with Dr. Gaylon Morgan and the tremendous cotton support organizations within the state.
Looking ahead, variety selection is often the first decision a grower will make. Evaluating variety performance, as well as technology packages and various disease ratings, can help determine what variety characteristics are needed compared to past issues and aid in narrowing down the broad range of options.
For information on variety characteristics and other information, county production meetings are a great opportunity to hear from several expert researchers who cover a broad range of topics and current subjects. A schedule of upcoming production meetings can be found at http://lubbock.tamu.edu/programs/crops/cotton/extension-cotton-agronomy/.