Profits not forgotten with Kansas cotton

Kansas farmers like Charles Unruh of rural Peabody are growing the South’s own King Cotton in the search for a profitable crop-and they appear to be making it work.

Charles and his son, Lewis, have “a little over 400 acres” of cotton this year, their “13th or 14th year” of growing the crop.

Charles began growing cotton after a trip to the Kansas State Fair at Hutchinson. A fellow farmer, Charles Gillmore of Sterling, was offering samples of roasted cotton seed to eat-and an opportunity.

“He was trying to promote growing cotton for a gin he had invested in at Sterling,” Unruh said. “Well, I’ll try about anything once.”

Unruh isn’t alone. The Kansas State University Extension Service estimates cotton acreage in Kansas went from 3,800 in 1995 to 16,500 in 1998 to more than 40,000 acres planted in 2000.

Gene Latham, general manager for Southern Kansas Cotton Growers Cooperative at Winfield, one of three gin operations where Unruh might ship his cotton, said the Kansas acreage will close at more than 50,000 acres for 2001.

He said Cowley, Sumner, Barber, Harvey and Barber counties are all big producing counties with new irrigated acreage coming in further west, especially in the Pratt and Greensburg areas.

This is the sixth year for the gin at Winfield and the third year for a gin at Anthony. Many farmers also ship to a gin at Blackwell, Okla., Latham said.

Latham has worked all his life with cotton, mostly on the West Texas plains around Lubbock, and he was surprised to find cotton would do well as far north as Kansas.

“The difference was altitude,” Latham said. “Kansas was a half-mile lower altitude here than West Texas, and that kept it still warm enough. The altitude makes a lot of difference.

“Some people have been growing cotton in Kansas since the early 1980s. People who couldn’t make much money with grain crops are making it with cotton, some of them for 15 years straight now.”

Although grading can change the money received for cotton, and yields can vary-like any crop- according to weather, Latham outlined a standard profit Kansas farmers shoot for.

He said they hope for a yield of one 480-pound bale per acre that will sell for $275 a bale after an investment to grow it of $150 per acre.

Cotton is drought resistant, but dry weather did reduce yields last year, and quality cuts reduced prices by an average of seven cents a pound, he said.

“That’s why people are embracing growing cotton,” Latham said. “It’s profitable, and that’s the name of the game.”

Unruh, meanwhile, also enjoys “living in a flower garden” with the cotton this time of year. New white flowers emerge daily, last only for the day, then turn shades of red and lavender that are camouflaged from view in the foliage.

On the third day from blooming, the boll, a capsule, begins forming that will hold the lint-which is the commercially important fiber portion-and the seed.

“Cotton is a completely different operation than grain farming, and we’ve changed the proportions of what we plant quite a bit,” Unruh said. “I’ll still use a no-till drill or a planter to put in 17 or 18 pounds, up to 20 pounds per acre. It’s black seed (delinted for planting with flame or chemicals) about the size of popcorn.

“You have a short window to plant the cotton in,” he added. “It has to be warm enough with the moisture right, usually May 15 to June 1. You can plant earlier if the soil temperatures are favorable. You need several warm, sunny days afterward.”

He said the cotton leaves are rolled up in the seed.

“You don’t get a shoot like with corn; it has to unroll,” Unruh said. “You need loose soil, and if it gets cold or you have a big, dashing rain, you’re in trouble.”

Cotton is sensitive to both the length of day and temperature in development. Stu Duncan, K-State crops and soils specialist for South-central Kansas, said at planting, “the soil temperature should be a minimum of 60 degrees between 10 a.m. and 12 p.m.”

Unruh said growing cotton is similar to growing soybeans, only with some different herbicides.

“You have Roundup cotton like Roundup soybeans, only you want to put it on to kill weeds when the cotton is only four to six inches tall,” he said. “You definitely can’t use Roundup on it when it’s setting bolls. On soybeans you could use it almost anytime.”

The fertilizer varies with the soil test, usually about 40 to 60 pounds of nitrogen per bale, hardly any phosphorus, and maybe a little potash.

“Cotton has a real deep tap root that brings stuff up from down deep, moisture too,” Unruh said. “It would be perennial if we didn’t have frost.

“You don’t want to over-fertilize, and you don’t want to get really too much rain or it will go to all green growth. It needs to stress a little to make bolls.”

Latham said the 100-degree weather with just adequate moisture and warm nights is good for cotton, although you don’t want drought either.

Only 35 to 40 percent of the cotton blooms make bolls. Duncan said best varieties for Kansas are early maturing-120 days-to make the most bolls.

Last year, he said, “Early boll set was the best I’ve seen in four years of working with cotton in Kansas. But high temperatures and drought conditions in August cut yields, and reduced fiber quality, particularly fiber length and strength.”

Unruh likes the late harvest time for cotton, extending as late as December, because it doesn’t take away labor needed to harvest other fall crops.

He said a machine called a stripper removes the bolls from the stalks in the field, leaving the rest of the plants as trash. The stripped cotton goes into a big module, or container, with an open bottom where it is compressed.

The metal module builder is then removed, leaving a “module” of cotton, about 32 feet long, 9 feet high and 7 feet wide, Unruh said, which is loaded by trucks with specialized chains (chain bed trucks similar to stack-hands) to be hauled to a gin.

Anywhere from 10 to 12 cotton bales, each around four-feet square, can be taken from a module at the gin where seed is separated from the lint, he said.

Latham said traditionally, the seed-which produces oil for food and industrial use, and a 40 percent protein, 6 percent fat meal for livestock feed-is expected to pay for the ginning process with the farmer getting the lint money. But, he said, “seed prices are down so it doesn’t quite do it, so the producers end up getting a little of the short end of the stick just like farmers always do.”

Unruh said the short-fiber Kansas cotton, desirable for making denim for blue jeans or T-shirts, then goes to Texas, where each bale is graded separately with samples pulled with grading hooks.

Each bale also is certified for pricing separately. He said a poor bale could go for mop fiber while a grower might receive a premium for a high-quality bale.

“When a buyer wants a certain grade bale, he knows where it’s at,” he said. “There’s a lot of different growers to satisfy a big market.”

Latham said longer-fibered cotton for higher quality cloth is grown in other parts of the country. Unruh said the proportions of his farming operation continue to change. At one time he planted mostly wheat, milo and soybeans.

Now, he and Lewis grow more corn and soybeans on the bottom land, and have replaced wheat with cotton on much of the upland.

“Cotton a lot of the time will beat everything we have on the upland,” Unruh said.

Latham said one proof of how well cotton has done is that, as far as he knows, 100 percent of cotton acres planted have been harvested while drought conditions have caused some fields of grain to be abandoned.

Unruh said some of his neighbors have tried to grow cotton, but his family is the only one to stick with it continuously in Marion County.

Latham said cotton demand in the United States has been growing every year , but American farmers are losing out on the total market share because of imports, especially finished textiles from China.

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