Natural instinct steers a farmer to look for the best yielding seed variety and go all-in, but Scott Flowers of Mattson Farms in Mattson, Miss., knows that unchecked instinct can hurt and haunt a crop all season long.
Yield is king in cotton, but it doesn’t rule alone. Coupled with yield, fiber quality offers a genuine value picture at harvest and a cents-per-pound gauge of what a producer will be paid. The significance of fiber quality means cotton can yield less and still bring more money. In addition, resistant traits and stress tolerance play key roles.
"The more experience I get in farming, the less I feel compelled to jump on a bandwagon variety just because it’s new and boasts high yields," Flowers says. "There is too much at risk not to rely on diversity."
Flowers farms a mix of crops on 9,500 acres. In 2013, he split five cotton varieties across 2,700 acres. Weather, fertility, rotation and insect control all played a role in bringing Flowers his best cotton haul to date—3.5 bales per acre. The stellar haul came on the heels of a 2.8 bale average in 2012. The high yield results also encouraged Flowers to boost his total cotton acreage to 3,500 this year.
Seeking higher fiber quality in cotton is a risky way to achieve higher profits when yield is low.
In a typical season, he often combines four proven varieties with one new variety based on initial testing. He plants the best variety on 40% of his cotton land and divides the others on the remaining 60%.
Mattson Farms’ crop consultant Rob Lewis, a 50-year veteran of Delta cotton fields, knows the difficulties that farmers face when picking the right seed.
"Technology has brought farmers so many good cotton varieties to choose from, and seed companies never stop bringing new varieties down the pipe," Lewis says. "Months of planning need to go into picking cotton seed. After a crop is harvested—September, October and November—a farmer finds out exactly what’s been made in yield and quality. Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, a farmer will have determined what varieties he’ll plant in the spring based on what just came out of the ground."
Risks rule. As insect problems shift and weed issues progressively worsen, resistant traits are gaining in rank. Flowers admits he is drawn to seed varieties that are outstanding in yield and fiber quality but lack resistant traits. However, despite potential for abundance and quality—and high profits—the risks rule his choices, and he only plants those particular varieties in small quantities.
Stress tolerance is vital, and without it the other production factors—yield, fiber quality and resistant traits—will collapse regardless of potential. Stress tolerance is paired in lockstep with the concept of consistency, the ability for a variety to do well across different environments and countless changes a farmer faces each season.
Flowers looks for seed varieties with high stress tolerance. "Seed companies try to market particular varieties by saying, ‘This needs to be placed on your best irrigated ground,’" he says. "But I don’t want a variety that needs a perfect environment. I want seed toughness that handles stress created by weather and stress brought on by me not making perfect decisions. Things never work the same each season, and we have to be prepared because no two weather years offer the same level of generosity."
It’s not complicated: At harvest, yield is the top priority, followed by fiber quality. The better those two factors are, the more money is made. But a multitude of factors play out behind seed choices, planting options and the production curtain, and Flowers is quick to make the distinction.
"I’m looking for seed that performs consistently," he says. "There’s simply too much at stake in our fields to choose otherwise."