It was a year Charles Dickens could have loved: It was the worst of times and the best of times for High Plains cotton growers.

A crop that got off to a ragged start across much of the region rallied with some timely rains or irrigation and held on long enough to take advantage of warmer than usual fall temperatures.

“We had heat unit accumulation substantially above the 30-year average from August through October and that allowed us to pull some cotton through,” said Randy Boman, Texas Cooperative Extension agronomist at the Texas A&M Research and Extension Center in Lubbock.

Boman discussed cotton production systems trials during the recent Southwest Crops Production Conference in Lubbock. He said the harsh conditions early hailed out some fields and set others back. Drought in-season also hindered production on dryland plots. But tough conditions put varieties and production systems to the test. Extension has run the systems project for four years.

“Early on, we found that cotton planted into terminated small grain survived severe weather better than cotton planted clean-till. We see a value in planting into grain residue,” Boman said. “The cover allowed us to save cotton. In conventional tilled fields we lost the crop and had to replant. We lost a lot of clean-tilled acres to high winds and hail.”

Boman said some growers expressed concern about a winter cover crop sapping soil moisture that the cotton may need or require irrigation to develop adequate cover. “But if growers can find a way to make that cover crop it deserves consideration,” he said.

Extension's systems trials include a number of varieties, which varies by location and trial, planted into different production systems. He recommends farmers use the systems trial results and Dr. John Gannaway's Texas Agricultural Experiment Station cotton performance test results as guides to select varieties and production practices for specific farms. Trials look at a number of factors, including yield, fiber quality, and per acre loan value.

“Growers need to take a look at varieties that produce quality fiber and stay out of discounts,” he said. “Anything below a 34 staple, for instance, puts us into a discount. Anything close to 32 staple takes a significant discount in the CCC Loan chart. We had a number of varieties in our tests that did not drop below 34 staple. But we had some with a high micronaire.”

He said high mic has caused problems and discounts for High Plains farmers the past few years. A mic above 5, he said, may mean a discount of 360 points or more. Low mic, from immature fiber, could result in a 180-point loss.

“Anything below 3.4 can get hit with at least a 180-point loss,” he said.

Last summer was set up for low mic ratings throughout much of the region. The crop was late, set back by early storms or dry weather or replanted late after being hailed out.

Boman said a test at Muleshoe, Texas, showed the value of an early-maturing crop. “We noted a 12-day difference in maturity from earliest to latest among stripper and picker-type cotton varieties,” he said. “Yields ranged from 1200 pounds per acre to 1677 pounds per acre, a spread of about 500 pounds. Difference in return was about $240 per acre.”

He said a test at Tokio, Texas, averaged only 180 pounds per acre. “That plot had very little rain.”

Boman said some of Gannaway's Texas Agricultural Experiment Station cotton variety performance tests in 2003 included a number of LibertyLink varieties, which are tolerant of the herbicide Ignite.

“This is another tool to help control weeds,” Boman said. “It's a good herbicide system but application should be timed based on weed size. Sequential applications may be necessary on some targets. Thorough coverage will be critical.”

Boman cautioned farmers to differentiate between Roundup Ready and Liberty Link. “You can't use Glyphosate on LibertyLink varieties. And you can't use Ignite on Roundup Ready varieties.”

Boman said fiber characteristic data from the LibertyLink tests were not available but said some of the selections “will be well above the mean for yield and turnout. We'll also look at storm resistance.”

Boman also discussed the trend to picker-type cotton in the High Plains as farmers try to improve yield potential and fiber characteristics. He warned that the warming trend that has allowed those later maturing, loose-boll varieties to compete with traditional, stripper-type, storm-proof varieties, may not hold.

He also said yield potential should be a farmer's first consideration when selecting a variety.

“Also, select a variety that will avoid discounts for fiber quality. Then consider value-added traits (insect resistance and herbicide tolerance). Make certain the variety is adapted to the area and consider the boll type.”

Boman said a farmer might select a different variety and boll type depending on whether he plans to use harvest aides or allow a freeze to kill foliage.”

He said selecting for disease tolerance, especially for bacterial blight, verticillium wilt, fusarium wilt and rootknot nematode, also makes economic sense in fields with a history of those problems.

“Cotton farmers should investigate variety performance before they plant,” he said. “And don't bet the farm on one variety, especially a new one.”

Boman said test results could be available on the Lubbock Center Web site as early as mid-March. The address for the Lubbock Center Web site is: http://lubbock.tamu.edu Or growers can call the Center at 806-746-6101 for information.

e-mail: rsmith@primediabusiness.com