On a crisp February morning cotton farmers Bill Lovelady and Bobby Skov finished breakfast and ordered yet another cup of java jolt at a popular cafe located a stone's throw off Interstate 10 in Fabens, Texas.
Most mornings the cafe is brimming with farmers who grow the majority of the Pima and upland cotton in El Paso and Hudspeth counties in western-most Texas. They talk shop: how the crop is progressing, too little and too much rain, pests, and diseases.
Third-generation grower Bill Lovelady grinned when he shared the average contract price received for his 2008 upland crop, 91 cents per pound. He contracted half the crop for 96 cents per pound and the other half at 86 cents per pound.
“It’s better to be lucky than smart any day. At those price levels it covers a multitude of sins,” Lovelady chuckled.
Lovelady grew 775 acres of cotton on Lovelady Farm, 640 acres of upland and 135 acres of Pima in Tornillo (El Paso County) and neighboring Hudspeth County which border the Rio Grande River. Lovelady’s grandfather was an early developer of Acala cotton in the 1920s; hence the nearby town which symbolically bears the name Acala.
Lovelady planted the FiberMax 989 upland variety last year, which yielded 2.8 bales per acre with 37 and 38 staple lengths and fiber micronaire from 3.8 to 4.0. Yields in the Lower El Paso Valley average about three bales per acre.
“There are times in this area when we’ll have some high micronaire, even penalty micronaire, but that was not a problem last year,” Lovelady said. “We had a wonderful harvest season. The upland cotton graded well, all 2s and a sprinkling of 1s.”
Lovelady plants cotton in 40-inch rows and flood irrigates with water from the Rio Grande. Soils on the farms range from sandy to Tigua clay, sometimes all in the same row.
An active summer rainy season elevated the annual 7-inch rainfall average to over 10 inches. The corresponding cooler temperatures reduced critical heat units for cotton development, which Lovelady testifies is especially important to Pima maturation.
The yield impact meant a less than stellar year for Lovelady’s Pima crop. Yields with Deltapine 744 seed produced 1.6 to 1.75 bales per acre (768 to 840 pounds). Grades were mostly in the 2 range with a sprinkling of 1s. Yields in recent years have surpassed the 1,000 pound lint range.
“The Pima quality was excellent with mostly 46 staple length and some 48,” Lovelady said. “Deltapine 744 consistently provides me with 46 and 48 staple on average. It’s also stronger.” The micronaire averaged 3.8 to 4.2.
Lovelady markets his crop through Calcot and takes his cotton to the Valley Gin in Tornillo. He noted minimal pest and disease issues last year.
Lovelady is no stranger to cotton organizations, serving as president of the National Cotton Council in 1997 and on the council’s pink bollworm eradication program. He held the Supima chairman’s post from 2001 to 2003. Supima is the promotional organization of the American Pima cotton growers.
Bobby Skov operates SK2 Farms with his family in Fabens. They grew cotton (400 acres), wheat (500 acres), pecans (200 acres), and onions (100 acres) last year. While he typically splits his cotton plantings equally between Pima and upland, Skov planted all upland last year. He markets through Jess Smith and Sons, Bakersfield, Calif.
“I thought I could grow upland cheaper than Pima last year and 90 cent upland futures offered a better chance to bring in more revenue,” Skov said. The cotton was sold in Jess Smith’s seasonal pool with the price yet to be determined.
Skov serves as president of the Valley Gin, one of the few remaining roller gins in Texas, which gins about 99 percent of Texas’ Pima crop. Last season Valley Gin ginned almost 40,000 Pima bales and about 15,000 bales of upland. Skov says 100 percent of Texas-grown Pima is produced in El Paso and Hudspeth counties.
Skov grew FiberMax 989, Deltapine 455 BG/RR, plus for the first time several All-Tex varieties (all upland).
“Each variety grew about three bales,” said Skov, a fourth-generation cotton grower. “No variety was head-and-shoulders above the rest.”
Last year’s crop produced disappointing yields. Skov budgeted for three bales per acre (about 1,500 pounds) but hoped to harvest 1,700 to 1,800 pounds per acre (about 3.5 bales).
“If I can make 3.5 bales of upland, I have some gravy in there,” Skov said. “I can stay in business at three bales.” Two bales per acre is his break-even point for Pima.
Skov defoliates about half of his cotton and relies on frost to do the rest. “If we can let Mother Nature do it with a freeze it saves money.”
Skov believes strongly in Roundup Ready technology, which reduces trips across the field for pesticide applications. He calls “gut-wrenching” the $250 per bag price tag which includes technology fees.
“The only thing that has kept me in the cotton business has been technology,” Skov said. “Roundup Ready and Bt cotton have allowed me to reduce my costs. That’s the only way I have been able to turn a profit in cotton. Prices haven’t gone up that much over the years.”
Skov grows cotton in sandy soils in 40-inch rows. Skov and Lovelady flood irrigate with 20 to 28 inches of water per crop. The valley water allocation is four-acre feet annually, which allows Skov to double crop wheat and onions.
“I pre-irrigate, then irrigate about June 10, water a month later, then again in three weeks, followed by irrigation every other week in August,” Skov said. “I prefer not to irrigate in September but the end result is more clods in the soil. I’m wearing out a disk right now.”
While many of the Cotton Belt states are expecting fewer acres in cotton this spring, Skov and Lovelady believe acreage will increase in West Texas.
“I think cotton will make it here,” Skov said. “With the problems California has with its worsening drought, there is no way growers there can continue to farm the Pima acres they have in the past. They have oversupplied the Pima market for too long; that curve is coming back our way.”
Skov’s intention is a 50-50 mix of Pima and upland this year due to price potential in Pima. That’s despite his dissatisfaction with the yields of current Pima varieties on the market. His goal is yielding 1,200 pounds of Pima lint per acre.
Lovelady predicts more cotton grown locally in 2009 and fewer grain acres due to retreating prices in recent months.
“Cotton is a crop that always has a future,” Lovelady said. “I’m afraid cotton is getting caught up in the world economic situation. But the old adage remains true — the cure for low prices is low prices.” While Lovelady expects increases in both cotton species this year, he believes upland acres will increase more than Pima acres.
Skov says a shining star for Pima producers is the diligent efforts of Supima. “Supima has kept Pima a part of my farming mix.”