Conventional Cotton Comeback

January 29, 2013 08:29 PM
Conventional Cotton Comeback

Economics steer producer decisions

Transgenic cotton is the most popular cotton type in the U.S., but producers still have a chance to profit when growing nontraited fiber.

Biotech cotton has bloomed quickly since its debut in 1996, now cornering the market with a 94% share. Growing conventional cotton has not become a lost art, but it is a rarity. "There are people in our industry now that have no experience dealing with conventional cotton," notes Texas crop consultant Jim Johnson.

"If you have not sold your hooded sprayer, don’t. There’s still a lot of use for it, especially if you’re planting conventional cotton."

Johnson and others met at the 2013 Beltwide Cotton Conference in San Antonio, Texas, to discuss the merits of growing conventional cotton in today’s Btdominated landscape. Is there still a case for conventional cotton?

"We plant both [Bt and conventional], and we think it goes better together," says Russell Jungmann, a Texas cotton producer.

For Jungmann, the decision is a matter of economics. In certain scenarios and fields, he says, it is more profitable to grow conventional cotton. In other instances, biotech cotton makes him more money. Jungmann uses a costanalysis spreadsheet to help him decide which mix to plant.

There are many equations that must be considered to determine what works best for your farm and the bottom line, he says.

Jungmann understands the variables at play, which allows him to select "the right tool for the right job."

More Work. Texas A&M University Extension economist John Robinson agrees that many variables come into play when determining whether or not to return to conventional cotton, and at how many acres. Cotton producers need to consider a variety of factors, including flexibility with weed/insect management, drift issues, managing volunteer cotton and seed availability.

He reminds producers that conventional cotton is labor-intensive. "If you’re going to switch your whole farm to conventional, that’s going to take more labor and machines," Robinson says.

The linchpin of any cotton production system is the ability to control yield-robbing weeds, says Paul Baumann, Extension weed specialist with Texas A&M AgriLife. He suggests conventional cotton producers keep at least two tools close at hand—hooded sprayers and soil-applied herbicides.

"If you have not sold your hooded sprayer, don’t," he says. "There’s still a lot of use for it, especially if you’re planting conventional cotton. We also have to understand the benefits of using alternative soil-applied herbicides. We must go back to what we learned years ago. The day the weed comes up with the crop, it’s already picking your pocket."

Charles Allen, Extension entomologist with Texas A&M AgriLife, says years of studies have proven both conventional and Bt cotton are profitable. But Allen has a separate concern about the sharp and sustained rise in Bt production during the last decade and a half—namely, that it’s contributing to an altered cotton infrastructure that could result in severe unintended consequences.

Allen has charted a steady decline in the number of cotton consultants, custom ground and aerial applicators, chemical sales reps and Extension entomologists during the past decade. Every human resource in agriculture is a valuable one, with the world population expected to top 9 billion by 2050, he says. "Trying to build the agriculture infrastructure—not just in cotton— is as urgent as it has ever been in the past 30 years," he says.

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