Cotton could come back to the Northeast corner of Texas. “It's a good rotation crop,” says Texas A&M Extension integrated pest management specialist Jim Swart.

“With the combination of boll weevil eradication, improved varieties and new technology farmers can make decent yields with cotton,” says Swart, who works out of the A&M-Commerce campus. “And it works well with soybeans, corn, wheat and grain sorghum. We're surrounded by soybeans and corn and neither does as well in a drought year as cotton. Cotton was designed for conditions that leave corn suffering.”

He says work that A&M-Commerce agricultural students are doing this summer may help farmers transition back to cotton. Swart teams up with Don Reid, professor of agronomy at A & M - Commerce, to teach the crop production course.

Ag students here make a crop as part of their curriculum and this summer 13 of them put in cotton. They get a grade, stand a chance of making a modest profit from about 10 acres of land, but, perhaps more important, they are early adapters of some of the latest technology available for cotton production.

“We're using seed treatments and varieties with herbicide tolerance and Bollgard technology,” says Daniel Hathcoat, a masters degree candidate from Brashear, Texas. He's growing cotton for the second time.

Students planted a Deltapine variety, DPL 444, and two FiberMax varieties, FM 989 BR and 960 BR. All of these varieties have “stacked genes” — both Bollgard and Roundup Ready. They're also using Gaucho Grande and Cruiser seed treatments for early-season insect control.

Most are using some form of reduced tillage system. “We're not going to straight no-till,” says Faith Henderson, from Bonham.

Reduced tillage

“Soils here are a bit too heavy for no-till” Reid says. “But we don't use much deep tillage either. For one thing, we don't have the equipment.”

Students rely mostly on a plowing disk, a finishing disk and a field cultivator, all donated to the program by individuals, companies or Cereal Crops Research Incorporated (CCRI).

They're also testing poultry litter to fill part of the crop's nutrient requirements. Some fields have up to three tons per acre. That project is in the second year and most fields have had at least one application of litter, courtesy of Pilgrim Industries.

“We use a 10-34-0 starter fertilizer and sidedress with about a half-rate of nitrogen,” says Hathcoat.

“We use a lot of Roundup,” says Josh Guin, a junior ag major. “All our varieties are Roundup Ready.”

“This is my first experience with a directed sprayer,” Henderson says.

They also use Sequence, Touchdown and Dual and agree that a pre-plant incorporated or pre-emergence herbicide needs to be part of the program.

And they spot spray with Roundup Weathermax in a backpack sprayer to take care of escapes.

They're also learning a lot about risk. In mid-June crop conditions varied considerably among the 13 tracts, depending mostly on when students got their crops planted. (Current conditions are dry, but most of the students have received enough summer rain to produce a decent crop.

“I hit it just right,” says Lonna Jochetz, a plant and soil science major from Plano who hopes to work for the Extension Service when she completes her degree. “Timing is critical but some things are just beyond our control.”

“It's a big risk,” Guin says. “My first planting failed. I just didn't get enough moisture.”

Henderson, who scouts about 2,000 acres for three cotton farmers in the area, says the student projects pretty much mirror what's going on in commercial fields. “I see a lot of cotton that's droopy and stressed,” she says. “One particular field I scout looks better than the rest, though.”

“We got our cotton in early and then got an early rain,” Hathcoat says. “We got some water a lot of places did not get.”

Weevil punctures

Henderson says she's seen a lot of boll weevil punctures and feeding damage in her cotton and in fields she scouts. That's a problem they expect will diminish in the next few years. Northeast Texas, part of the Northern Blacklands Boll Weevil Eradication Zone, begins the program with diapause treatments this fall. So students who plant cotton here next year, will have fewer boll weevils. They've had plenty this summer.

“I have one field that was a boll weevil buffet,” Jochetz says. “In early June we were catching more than 50 weevils per trap every week. Numbers dropped when the oldest fields started squaring.”

Swart says students made two over-winter weevil treatments with Leverage (a Baythroid, and Provado mix) to take care of aphids and weevils.

Most students had some early season fleahopper and thrips damage. “It recovered and grew out of it,” Jochetz says.

All four expect to make something from cotton. The deal is, they keep any profit they make on the crops. They have to pay back expenses, except for some materials that are donated. Swart and Reid say Syngenta, Delta and Pine Land, Monsanto, DuPont and Bayer have supported the program strongly and donate most of the crop protection materials.

“Tuition. That's my yield goal,” Jochetz says. “We get to work the market, too. But this is my first time with cotton so I have no idea what to expect.”

Hathcoat made three-fourths of a bale per acre the last time he grew cotton. “That was a $600 profit, but cotton was selling at 62 cents a pound.”

‘Tickled with bale’

“We'd be tickled with a bale per acre,” Swart says.

Students hope prices stay at least around 50 cents per pound. They got hammered last year. Dreadful weather prevented timely harvest so quality was poor. Most settled for about 35 cents a pound.

“We hope DPL and FM varieties help get a premium price for better quality,” Henderson says.

Reid and Swart act as academic advisor/crop consultants for the student farmers. “We hold strategy meetings every week,” he says. “This year, weevils have been a high priority.”

None of the four students expect to earn a living from growing cotton when they graduate. But each expects the experience will be an asset in whatever ag-related field they pursue.

Hathcoat and Jochetz, with possible Extension careers, may find themselves back in a cotton field sooner than they might expect. Henderson's experience already has helped with a summer job, cotton scout, and she expects to draw on the experience with any other farm or ranch occupation she follows.

“Whatever I do in agriculture, making this crop will help me understand what farmers do,” Guin says. “It will help me relate to them.”

And some of the experience they pick up in an area where cotton has declined precipitously over the past decade may provide some insight to growers who may take advantage of a no-weevil zone to bring cotton back.

e-mail: rsmith@primendiabusiness.com