“You can grow three cotton crops for the amount of water it takes to grow one crop of corn in a normal year,” says Jerry Stuckey, who farms near Moscow. “At the cotton loan rate of 52 cents a pound, you can gross more per acre with two-bale cotton than 200-bushel corn, and you don’t have near the input costs with cotton.”

In 2002, planted cotton acreage in the southwestern Kansas counties of Stevens, Grant, Seward, Haskell and Meade was up nearly 10-fold to about 40,000 planted acres. This year, area farmers could plant an additional 30,000 to 50,000 acres says Stuckey, who also manages the new Northwest Cotton Growers Co-op Gin in Moscow, which began operating last fall.

(USDA’s 2003 Planting Intentions Report, released yesterday, put Kansas’s cotton acreage at 110,000.)

Long term, Stuckey and farmer Scott Young say southwestern Kansas cotton acreage could climb to 200,000 acres, about a quarter of the region’s irrigated corn acreage. Dryland cotton also could take off, since normal winter precipitation is adequate for cotton.

If current optimism for cotton holds, more ginning capacity will be needed before long. “We may build another gin in 2004,” says Stuckey.

Memories of last year’s drought, which decimated dryland crops and corn irrigated by low-capacity wells, have spurred interest from farmers who have never grown cotton. The availability of a local gin also has been important, says Stuckey, who formerly trucked his cotton 230 miles to Hereford, TX.

For a farmer new to cotton, getting started in the crop is relatively inexpensive, since cotton can be planted with equipment already on hand and harvesting can be hired. “All you need to buy is a hooded sprayer to apply Roundup,” says Stuckey, who recommends planting Roundup Ready cotton because of the ease of controlling weeds.

Farmers need hooded sprayers to apply Roundup or other glyphosate products beneath the cotton canopy after the fifth-leaf stage. A 12-row hooded sprayer costs about $10,000, says Young, who also operates Southwest Pivot, a Moscow machinery dealership.

Stuckey says his Redball hooded sprayer has helped reduce crop chemical costs in cotton and other crops. Rigged with extra nozzles, the sprayer can make applications over the row in addition to applying herbicides between rows beneath the hoods. He can band Pix at the same time he applies Roundup.

e-mail: rsmith@primediabusiness.com