Cotton isn’t king in Kansas, but it’s a fine prince for many Jayhawk growers.
When Kent Dunn first planted cotton seed in his Moscow, Kan., sandy loam soil in 2002, 2-bale cotton at loan was $500 per acre, yet 200-bushel corn at $2.50 per bushel was $500 per acre. Fast forward 15 years to 2017: 70-plus cents on 1,200 lb. per acre cotton beats 200-bushel corn under $4 per bushel. Tack on the arrival of 2,4-D-tolerant varieties in a state with perennial drift issues, and cotton is all the more enticing for Kansas growers.
Kansas is often the forgotten son of the Cotton Belt, battling the past decade with a one-two punch of drought and drift, dodging one to get hit by the other, and planting roughly 50,000 acres per year. However, 2017 Kansas cotton acreage jumped to 85,000 acres and 2018 could feature another significant acreage increase.
Dunn, 57, grows alfalfa, corn, cotton, grain sorghum, sunflowers, and wheat in the southwest corner of the state. From 2011 to 2016, he averaged 500 to 1,000 acres of cotton, but planted 1,800 acres in 2017. The acreage increase isn’t due solely to the commodity market: Dunn says the 2,4-D cavalry has arrived.
The degree of drift damage varies between years, but Dunn deals with telltale crowfoot 2,4-D injury on an annual basis. In a forgotten age of glyphosate efficacy, growers could smoke kochia and Palmer amaranth, but over the past decade weed resistance has pushed Kansas farmers toward 2,4-D and dicamba. Kansas has no mandatory cutoff date and the incessant drift problems from sprays on summer-fallowed ground have been partially responsible for keeping a lid on Kansas cotton acreage.
The availability of the 2,4-D-tolerant Enlist system is a game-changer, according to Dunn. “The constant 2,4-D drift problems are behind us,” he says. “Dicamba-tolerant cotton has been around here two years, but it also suffers from 2,4-D damage. In my area, we’re mostly planted with Enlist. The lower middle of Kansas is mostly Xtend cotton. The southeast seems to be split between Xtend and Enlist.”
Despite Dunn’s enthusiasm over Enlist, he says availability is a limiting factor: “We’ve got two short-season varieties to choose from right now, but we’re hoping for five or six by 2018.”
Dunn typically rotates cotton and plants into corn stalk residue or wheat stubble, aiming for 1,100-1,200 lb. per acre in yield. Irrigation blankets 90% of Dunn’s cotton ground. Kansas cotton is a rough 50-50 split between dryland and irrigated acreage. Western Kansas cotton is usually irrigated with dryland on field corners. In south-central Kansas, and certainly further east, greater precipitation allows for dryland success.
Kansas dryland growers often target 500-600 pounds of cotton per acre; and irrigated growers shoot for 2 to 2.5 bales, according to Zach Hrencher, secretary/treasurer of the Kansas Cotton Association (KCA) and member communications area manager for Plains Cotton Cooperative Association. “We definitely expect higher target goals in the future. We’ve been dinged by 2,4-D and dicamba so hard that we don’t know our own potential. The new varieties are packed with yield promise, but at the same time, we have to be able to get more access to those short-season varieties.”
Hrencher says a learning curve is the biggest challenge for new cotton growers. “We don’t want to grow trees; we want short top plants with loads of bolls. Cotton is high management and you can’t stop in early August and think you’ve spent enough on a crop and then coast. You’ve got to spend and finish right or it’s a recipe for disaster.”
Steady growth is a top goal of KCA, according to Hrencher. Acreage spikes and fluctuations place a strain on gin infrastructure and logistics. KCA wants Kansas to be a top 10 cotton state. “That means we need to start producing 400,000 to 450,000 bales per year,” Hrencher notes. “It’s crucial for us to build a desire to grow cotton through research, promotion and education. We want our Kansas farmers to have the opportunity to grow cotton and succeed.”
Dunn, vice president of KCA, expects heavy fiber in 2017, courtesy of superior technology and timely rainfall. He put several inches of water on his cotton early to get the crop up, and a wet summer kept in-season irrigation requirements at a minimum. “I’m expecting some nice yield with this seed technology. In other years, we’ve been hit so many times with 2,4-D drift and it takes the cotton an entire week to recover. This year we haven’t been slowed down with those drift issues,” he explains.
Dunn farms in Stevens County in a heavy corn-growing area dotted with feed yards. Directly to the northeast, Haskell County is the largest county per capita in the U.S. for cattle on feed. Feedlots, dairies and ethanol plants drive massive grain production in the region. However, Dunn says 2,4-D tolerant seed and the dismal price of grain is driving new grower interest in cotton. His gin (Northwest Cotton Growers Co-op Gin) will process 30,000 acres in 2017, and Dunn says the facility’s ginning acreage number may triple in 2018.
Whether due to prices or variety advances, many Kansas growers are eyeing cotton with a change in mind, according to Dunn: “It’s true that cotton takes more management and vigilance. It also cash flows better than any crop in our area and there’s a lot of farming neighbors watching and wondering about cotton.”