Cotton could soon take root in Marion County, farmers hear

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN TOM STOPPEL
Farmers in Marion County soon could be looking at another option to put more black in their bottom lines.

And it might be one of the best cotton-pickin’ ideas to come along in quite awhile.

Representatives from the Southern Kansas Cotton Growers Co-op told about 15 area farmers meeting in Hillsboro Thursday that raising cotton could become a prudent proposition in the near future.

“The trend in cotton is really on the upswing,” said Rex Friesen, entomologist and pest management specialist with the SKCGC.

“We’re not here to bury you in details, but it’s kind of like reading the label of a prescription drug or over-the-counter drug-you know what it’s going to do for you, but you see all the cautions and warnings and wonder why you’re doing that.”

Friesen, along with agronomist Shelly Kaylor and Gene Latham, general manager of the SKCGC office in Winfield, were in Hillsboro to explain the benefits and logistics of raising a crop that’s rare in these parts.

“Cotton may sound like it’s a real pain-and it is a more high-maintenance crop than you’re used to, but that’s not a problem if you know what to be looking for through the growing season, and that’s where SKCGC can help,” Friesen said.

“We feel the main reason more growers in Kansas are growing cotton is because they’re making money doing it.”

Cotton acres across southern and western Kansas has increased from about 1,000 acres planted in 1995 to more than 60,000 acres in 2005.

Friesen said the increase has been fueled in part because of the 1995 Freedom to Farm Act, which allows farmers to be free of program restrictions and to try other crops.

“We feel like cotton has something to offer,” he said.

The SKCGC recently purchased its second cotton gin, this one located in Anthony, to add to their existing facility in Winfield.

“There are currently four gins in Kansas,” Friesen said, including the ones in Moscow and Cullison. “And the way things are going, that may not even take care of it as the acreage continues to grow.”

Although Marion County previously was thought to be too far north to accommodate the specific climatological needs of cotton, recent genetic advances in cotton seed and plants now make it a viable candidate for this area.

“Planting is usually done around May 10 and should end about June 1,” Kaylor said. “The first stage is planting, and that requires the soil be about 60 degrees.

“Cotton works in no-till, strip-till and conventional till,” she added. “What’s really neat about cotton is that it’s really versatile.”

Friesen said cotton seed should be planted at a rate of about 38,000 to 43,000 seeds, “and that ought to give you a stand of 25,000 to 35,000 plants.”

Seed should be planted about 1/2 to 3/4 inches inches deep.

“If you plant and you see a few seeds on top once in a while, you’re doing it just about right,” Friesen said.

Kaylor cautioned: “But if you have moisture 2 inches deep, don’t try to plant down to the moisture.”

Optimum plant density is about 11/2 to two plants per row foot on 30-inch rows.

“Your final stand can vary tremendously,” Friesen said. “One thing about cotton is that it’ll compensate for space.”

The seed cost averages $24 per acre.

Overall, input costs for cotton averaged $284.33 per acre, according to a projected budget for south-central Kansas growers.

Those costs were higher than corn ($241.87), milo ($207.40), soybeans ($200.88) and wheat ($177.97). But it’s the end result that gives growers visions of cotton candy in their pockets.

Gross income per acre for cotton is projected at $281.50, giving growers an anticipated profit of $39.50 per acre.

Returns and projected profits for competing crops include corn ($214.60/$11.60 per acre), milo ($185.20/$10.20), soybeans ($184.63/$26.63) and wheat ($163.90/$18.90).

Typically, growers hope to raise a bale of cotton per acre (average weight 480 to 500 pounds) on dryland, Kaylor said.

“Each bale is graded individually and stands on its own merit,” Latham added.

“Cotton is priced by the pound and that price ranges because of the grading system,” Friesen added. “The good cotton this year was priced from 55 to 59 cents per pound, but on average, I think it was about 50.7 cents per pound.”

While that price might initially suggest cotton doesn’t have a substantial impact on the economy, the reality is impressive once the math is done.

“We have a marketing pool and this year we marketed 2.6 million bales of cotton,” Latham said.

Cotton, by tradition and necessity, is a crop generally thought to be best suited for the southern tier of states, and with good reason. Typically cotton requires only 12 to 15 inches of moisture to produce an abundant crop.

“One thing we hear about cotton is that it ruins the land like it did down south, but they’ve been raising cotton for over 200 years,” Latham said.

But a Kansas farmer can’t raise cotton exclusively, Latham said.

“It doesn’t produce much organic matter, so it needs to be used in a rotation with grain crops,” Latham said. “Cotton works very well because it’s a deep-rooted plant and goes very deep.

“Once that root rots, water, nutrients and air go down in the ground and we see yield increases in wheat, sorghum and corn following cotton,” he added. “I know a producer who plants cotton just so he can follow it with corn.”

While the meeting was sponsored by cotton advocates and designed to promote the benefits of cotton, not everything about the crop is perfect.

One local farmer expressed concern about the vulnerability of the cotton plant when herbicides are sprayed in adjoining fields of other crops.

“All of a sudden, because a neighbor is going to border my field with cotton that’s very susceptible to direct spray or even drift, I’m the one who’s going to be liable for his cotton,” the farmer said.

“But there’s no counter liability for me because I’m going to continue to raise sorghum and I can’t address my own weed pressure for fear of damaging his cotton and I’ll be liable.

“Will I have to change my farming practices after decades to accommodate the new kid on the block?”

Friesen said he had no concrete answers to that concern, but new chemicals are being developed that eliminate the damaging drift they may cause.

“First, never use Ester (2-4D) and the Amine is better but not perfect,” Friesen said. “There are products that go on wet and dry down to a residue or are glycol-based and don’t volatilize as readily.

“But you still have to be aware of the wind direction and where your neighbors are,” he added. “With a little care in choice of chemicals and application timing, drift does not need to be an issue while still obtaining good control.”

Whether or not Marion County becomes the cotton capital of Kansas, growers were advised of the potential the crop provides.

With rain harder and harder to come by in recent times, cotton may be an alternative source of farm income.

“Cotton isn’t for everybody but it’s worth looking into,” Kaylor said.

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