Dig a little deeper.

That's the advice J. C. Banks, Oklahoma Extension cotton specialist, offers farmers as they take soil samples to determine fertility rates for the 2008 crop.

“Fertilizer prices are out of sight,” Banks says. Consequently, cotton farmers need to use fertilizer as efficiently as possible. The flip side of higher fertilizer prices, especially nitrogen sources, is significant improvement in cotton prices, a combination that could leave farmers wondering what to do with fertility programs.

Across-the-board cuts make little sense, Banks says. “Farmers still need to make the pounds.”

But many may have more residual nitrogen stored in the soil than they realize. And that reserve could save them a lot of money.

“We're pushing for deeper soil testing,” Banks says. “Most farmers test the first 6 to 8 inches and figure nitrogen fertilization rates on those findings. But in many fields, from 6 to 24 inches, we find a lot of nitrogen, as much as 50 pounds per acre, that has not been depleted. That's 50 pounds of nitrogen farmers don't have to apply. They can save quite a lot of money.”

He said a lot of Oklahoma's cotton fields were water logged early last year. “Plants did not develop a deep root system and did not use a lot of nitrogen. I think there is potential for significant nitrogen left in those soils,” he says.

“If there was ever a year when farmers needed to remember the potential for using deep nitrogen, this is it.”

Banks says cotton farmers also need to look closely at the economics of split nitrogen applications. “Splitting nitrogen is often a good deal,” he says, “But farms can fall into a trap and end up applying more expensive nitrogen later in the season than they do early. Farmers should look at their options, and analyze potential price increases during the growing season.”

Banks says farmers often use a different type of nitrogen for in-season applications and those sources are often more expensive.

“The cheapest source of nitrogen usually is the type applied before planting,” he says. “Look at various sources and price differences before deciding how to apply fertilizer.”

Banks says cotton farmers also face higher costs for diesel fuel in 2008. “Diesel is a big part of the production budget so reducing trips across the fields will be important. Any time a farmer eliminates an operation he saves money.”

“We know reduced tillage will work,” Banks says. “And if a farm production type can adapt to it, no-till is the cheapest way to put in a cotton crop because of transgenic varieties.”

Banks says growers might reduce seeding rate to save a few more dollars. “Farmers can go too low, but anyone planting 60,000 seeds per acre can cut back. A lot of farmers are planting 40,000 seeds per acre and doing well with good planting conditions.”

Switching to larger equipment also offers potential to save money. “Labor is the big issue,” Banks says. He says a recent law passed by the Oklahoma Legislature puts stringent restrictions on immigrant labor. “We lost a lot of our labor force. It's hard to find equipment operators and it's really hard to find qualified operators.”

Upgrading from 8-row to 16-row equipment will reduce labor demand. “Guidance systems on these larger units also make it possible to use slightly less experienced operators.”

Guidance systems also improve accuracy of operation. These systems reduce error potential for spraying, planting, and even cultivating. “They reduce damage to the crop and may save money on weed escapes and late herbicide applications. Guidance systems also reduce fatigue,” Banks says.

Bigger units are more efficient. Farmers can use fewer units and may save fuel in addition to labor.

Banks recommends farmers analyze all aspects of their operations and determine how a change in one operation will affect other practices. “Farmers may do a lot of head scratching this year early in the season to determine how to make something work all season long. Sometimes they may need to change the system.”

Banks says rotation to a grain crop on some acreage may offer cotton farmers a profit opportunity. “We'll see more milo this year. We saw more than usual last year, but people set up to grow cotton will do better with cotton. The outlook for cotton price, considering world demand, indicates prices will stabilize or increase.”

Banks warns farmers against being penny smart and pound foolish as they look at managing crop expenses. “Farmers can't afford to do anything that decreases pounds,” he says. “If they put a dollar into production they need to get more than a dollar back.”

He also cautions against cutting a dollar out and facing the possibility of losing two dollars from reduced production.”

Banks says farmers currently are concerned with low soil moisture. “We're dry, as dry as we were this time two years ago. But we pulled ourselves out last year from a late spring delay. We need another wet spring this year.”

Banks says the Oklahoma cotton-production area had a dry fall that was beneficial for cotton harvest. The dry spell has persisted, however. “We got a pretty good rain, 2 to 3 inches, in December, but nothing since,” he says.