Dryland cotton fits well into a wheat, milo, soybean and occasional corn crop rotation on Rick and Derek Totten's Sumner County, Kansas, farm.
“We get too much rain to make really good wheat (consistently),” says Derek, who farms some 4,500 acres with his father. “And we get too little rain to make really good row crops. But cotton fits about as well as anything if we get rain when we need it.”
Rick started growing cotton in 1998 and says dryland yields range from 450 to 900 pounds per acre.
“Last year (2006) was the worst cottonyear we've had since 1998,” Rick says. “We averaged about 400 pounds per acre, about break-even. We have a pretty good crop this year.”
They've settled on about 1,000 to 1,100 acres of cotton. “The flip side now is that markets for other commodities are up but we'll keep cotton,” Rick says. “It fits our rotation plan well, and we have investments in cotton equipment. ”
They like cotton behind milo, planted no-till. “The residue improves the soil,” he says. And wheat seems to do better behind cotton. They believe the deep cotton taproot creates an ideal growing medium for wheat.
Cotton and wheat are their primary crop options. “We like to plant some early milo and also double crop some behind wheat,” Rick says. They add corn and soybeans to the mix.
“We can make good milo, 80 to 120 bushels per acre, and at $6.50 a bushel we do pretty well,” Rick says. “We're about done with soybean harvest (in mid-November) and we'll average 25 to 30 bushels per acre. That's about normal. We had one field that made about 13 and one that may go over 40. If everything goes right we can make 40 bushel per acre soybeans.”
They lost the 2007 wheat crop to wet weather. “We harvested 300 acres out of 1,800,” Rick says. “If we had made a decent wheat crop and then good fall crops, we would be in good shape.”
He says good varieties have helped with cotton yields. “We plant all picker-type cotton. We're committed to good grades and we're getting good yields with picker cotton.”
They plant Delta and Pine Land 434 and 121 Flex; NexGen 1553 and 1772 Flex; and All-Tex Patriot. They get a little tagging from the picker cotton but say yields and grades make up for it.
They tried Flex for the first time this year and will add more in 2008 if yields turn out. Weed problems are not severe, partly because of a consistent rotation program, Rick says.
“We have hooded sprayers but those are becoming a thing of the past. We always use about 20 ounces of Dual and run the hoods one time.
“We don't plant Bollgard cotton. I've seen only two bad worm years since 1998 and one of them was this year. We had to spray everything at least once. They came out of corn and into the cotton.”
They've seen no boll weevils.
Derek says rainfall, typically 35 inches to 36 inches a year, is enough to make a good cotton crop, “If we get rain the first two weeks of August, we can make 800 pounds per acre. It doesn't take much moisture before that to make a good cotton crop.”
They usually rely on foliar fertilizer applications to make the crop.
“Next year, I'll probably stream some nitrogen on pre-plant and then make two foliar applications,” Rick says.
They're concerned about fertilizer costs. “We could pay $40 to $50 per acre to fertilize wheat,” Rick says. “If we can get $6.50 a bushel for it, we'll still be okay. We planted a lot of wheat this fall because of the price.”
Rick likes to try new technology and looks for ways to improve efficiency on his farm. “I've always been one to try new things,” he says. “Not all of them worked. But I have to keep an open mind.”
If he didn't, he never would have tried cotton as far north as Sumner County, Kansas.
“Cotton is an interesting crop, but it takes a lot of management. I do all the spraying so I see the fields once a week.”