Technology paved the way for improving cotton yields and quality in the Texas Coastal Bend, and continuous adoption of technology, including biotech, will be crucial in keeping the crop viable in an increasingly competitive global market.

“Development and adoption of technology will be essential for survival,” says Carl Anderson, Texas Extension economist.

Anderson, in an address to the Texas Gulf Coast Cotton Conference in Corpus Christi in November, outlined the major technological developments of the past five decades and said staying competitive requires an ongoing commitment to lowering production costs.

“Biotechnology will be a key to reducing costs,” Anderson said. “We have to be more efficient to compete.”

He said cooperation within the textile industry would be important. “This is one of my pet peeves,” he said. “For 20 years producers have planted and harvested cotton and then forgot about it.

“Harvesting the crop is just the start.”

He said producers and the rest of the industry must “iron out their problems. Strategic planning throughout the textile industry will make everyone stronger. If mills are hurting, producers are hurting, too.”

He said cotton plays too important a role in the state and the nation to be neglected. “It's the leading crop in Texas, a 4.5 million-bale crop annually. It's a $340 million industry in the Coastal Bend.”

Anderson said considering government payments and the impact of chemicals, fertilizer and equipment sales, plus ginning, cotton pumps more than $1.5 billion into the Texas economy.

It's come a long way in 50 years, he said. “From 1940 through 1950, we were still using two-row equipment and manual lift tractors. Farm size averaged from 150 to 200 acres, and cotton prices ranged from 10 cents to 32 cents a pound, not all that much different from today.”

In the decade of the ‘50s, farmers began to use hydraulic equipment, chemical defoliants and cotton strippers. Farm size doubled. Cotton prices ranged from 28 cents to 39 cents per pound.

In the ‘60s, diesel tractors appeared with six-row equipment. “Farmers adopted the mechanical harvester and stripped about half our acreage mechanically. We also started using soil-applied herbicides.”

Farm size ranged from 250 to 750 acres.

From 1970 through 1980, cotton came to a crossroads in the Coastal Bend, Anderson said. “Acreage was at an all-time low.”

Farmers turned the decline around in 1975 by switching from slow-growing varieties that were subject to hurricane damage to early-maturing alternatives such as Tamcot.

Farmers also began using eight-row equipment, 100 hp tractors and early-season boll weevil treatments. Farm size grew to 500 to 1,000 acres and price ranged from 21 cents to 62 cents a pound.

In the 1980s, 200 hp tractors and 12-row equipment emerged to handle even larger farms, 740 to 2,000 acres. Texas producers began growing Delta-type cotton.

“Variety changes played a huge role in keeping the Coastal Bend in cotton,” Anderson said.

High volume instrumentation, or HVI, was developed to improve classing efficiency and accuracy. Farmers began using pyrethroids for insect control and growth regulators to manage excessive vegetation. Prices ranged from 46 cents to 69 cents per pound.

Technology advances in the last decade include rubber-tracked tires and 24-row equipment. Genetically modified, herbicide-resistant varieties allowed over-the-top application of non-selective herbicides. Biotechnology also produced insect resistant varieties.

“Genetic modifications changed production systems,” Anderson said.

So did boll weevil eradication. “We had no choice but to participate in eradication efforts,” Anderson said.

Farmers increased gin-direct sales and used chemicals to terminate stalk growth.

Average farm size increased to a 1,000 to 4,000-acre range. Prices ran from 41 cents to 75 cents per pound.

Anderson said yield and quality have improved. “Yields, of course, are variable and have averaged as high as 800 pounds per acre. They're closer to 600 this year.”

Strength has improved. Staple has increased up to a 34 to 36 range from 32. “We have to get a higher staple to compete in a global market,” Anderson said.

Adopting new technology as it comes along will allow farmers to continue yield and quality improvement trends, he said.

rsmith@primediabusiness.com