Cotton is the new crop on the block in the high plains of the Oklahoma Panhandle.

Where water is precious and fertilizer prices higher than ever, plains farmers are finding cotton provides a high-yielding commodity that uses less water and fertilizer than traditional crops.

Father and son, Raymon and Kenny Lunsford of Guymon, are among the first Oklahoma Panhandle producers to grow cotton big-time. They made their first-ever cotton crop in 2002.

“Before we started growing cotton my dad and I were looking seriously for a crop to grow in combination with corn, grain sorghum and wheat,” Kenny Lunsford said. “Our irrigated corn was costing more to grow each year.”

Raymon, who has farmed all of his life, had to be convinced to try cotton, Kenny said. When they started asking about cotton, they talked to farmers in the Plainview, Texas, area and found they were quitting cotton. “But after checking further, we discovered those farmers were suffering from a lack of water for irrigation.”

So Kenny went to Kansas where farmers had been growing cotton successfully for several years and new gins were popping up at several locations.

“In 2000, I spent several days with Kansas cotton specialists, gin managers and farmers,” Kenny said. “My mind was made up the day I spent riding a cotton stripper watching the machine's yield meter climb as we harvested.”

Once their minds were made up, the Lundsfords didn't take long to get the planters rolling. In 2005 they planted 5,100 acres of center pivot-irrigated cotton and 1,029 acres of dryland cotton.

Getting this year's crop started wasn't easy, Kenny said just before harvest. “Due to a big hail out, we had to replant l, 200 acres. The portion we had to replant was fair to good. The rest of it looked really good with potential for excellent yields.”

Lunsford likes cotton for its yield and price potential but particularly for its positive growth characteristics. “This year, we put 17 inches of irrigation water on corn and just 5 inches on cotton. We used less fertilizer on cotton compared to other crops and, due to technological advantages such as stacked gene varieties, it is less trouble to grow.”

They also grew irrigated sunflowers and had to apply 7 inches to 9 inches of water on that crop.

Kenny followed the advice of his cotton consultant. Loran Seaman, Hugoton, Kansas, and sprayed twice for thrips. They also sprayed to control bollworms. They used just one variety, Paymaster 4145, a Roundup Ready, early maturing variety selected for the High Plains short growing season. Lunsford likes the variety because it is hairy-leafed. “Hairy -leafed cotton plants are more resistant to 2,4-D problems than smooth-leafed cotton,” Lunsford said.

Lunsford uses strip till with a 30-inch ripper knife to open the ground. “We fertilizer those strips using tractor-mounted soil monitoring systems so we can put the fertilizer where it is needed,” he said.

In the final phase of the 2005 harvest, Lunsford ran five eight-row strippers to stuff four module builders as fast as possible. He said 2005 was a good year. “We had a good harvest with open weather. Irrigated cotton was yielding 1,100 pounds of lint per acre.”

Thinking ahead to the 2006 growing season, Lunsford is bullish on cotton on the High Plains. “I believe we will have 8,000 acres of cotton this year under center pivots. We still have to look at what we will be doing on dryland cotton.”

Planting dryland will depend on how good a water profile they have in the spring, he said. If the water profile is good, they'll plant more.

New developments in modern cotton varieties have helped them, he said. New features such as Roundup Ready Flex will be good if they can be applied to the types of varieties the need on the high plains, he said.