The conventional has become the unconventional, at least for some cotton producers in central Alabama who are bucking the trend and planting conventional cotton varieties.

“Growing conventional cotton was a matter of economics for us,” says Richard Edgar, who farms in central Alabama’s Elmore County. “We have dryland cotton and problems with reniform nematodes. We just didn’t have the yield that would allow for the technology fee. Then, when boll weevil eradication came along, we no longer had the need for the Bt. Now that we’re seeing resistant weeds, the glyphosate technology has diminished in terms of value.”

Edgar isn’t alone — about 10 growers in central Alabama are planting conventional cotton along with a few more in north Alabama. “Growers just need to understand they can’t cut corners on their pre-emergence and postemergence herbicide when growing conventional cotton. You can’t clean up after conventional cotton and you can’t cut your herbicide rates,” says Leonard Kuykendall, Auburn University regional Extension agent.

It’s a personal choice for the grower, says Kuykendall, and it’s not for everyone. “For my growers with grass problems, I recommend the Roundup Ready system. The conventional production system requires a higher level of management,” he says.

This year, Kuykendall will have four Roundup Ready Flex trials, two conventional trials, and one LibertyLink trial. “We’re trying to serve our clientele. There’s a pocket of growers here in central Alabama who have been growing conventional cotton successfully for several years now. It’s another option, and it gives growers some independence,” he says.

Some cotton producers in central Alabama are simply struggling to survive, he adds. “They’ve been growing cotton all their lives, and they’re doing whatever they can to hang on,” says Kuykendall.

Edgar, who grows about 700 acres of cotton in addition to corn, wheat, grain sorghum and soybeans, says he has been driven by economics to using a conventional cotton production system. “It’s a good tool, it has its place, but I can’t afford to grow it, especially at current cotton prices. When it all shakes out, with our experience planting conventional cotton, it just makes sense,” he says.

A key to the success of Edgar’s conventional cotton system is the use of an insect scout. “We’ve seen the emergence of secondary pests like plant bugs and stink bugs, and you do have some escaped worms. When it comes down to it, averaging across the times I’ve planted conventional cotton, I haven’t sprayed my cotton any more for worms than if I had been spraying Bt cotton,” he says.

Edgar says he sprays once, maybe twice on some of this cotton, with the trigger being the stink bug window — around the first of August — and not the worm count. “When we’ve felt we were dealing with bollworms and sprayed a pyrethroid, our insecticide cost have been about one-sixth that of a technology fee. You can’t justify paying for the Bt technology under those conditions. I use a scout because I know there’s a possibility I’ll have to spray for worms,” he says.

Since the advent of Roundup Read technology, he says, populations of resistant weeds have built up in fields. “We built a population of weeds we weren’t accustomed to dealing with when we were using products like Cotoran, Diuron and the yellow herbicides for grasses,” says Edgar.

Conventional cotton production is clearly not for everyone, he says. “But if it’s something you want to manage, you need to be timely with your weed applications — you can’t fall back on cleaning up the crop with glyphosate. The same is true for insects. We know we can’t go in and do something early with plant bugs because we want to maintain our beneficials. We know we need to stay on top of it later in the season. During peak fruiting, we can’t let worms get ahead of us.”

Edgar says his cotton quality has improved since he began growing conventional cotton. “Since we’ve been planting all conventional varieties, our micronaire hasn’t been as high, even in the bad years.”

Pretty much all of Edgar’s cotton is planted in conservation-tillage with a Paratill and it’s all dryland. He beds the land where he’s following wheat or soybeans.

“Where we Paratill, we burn down early with a glyphosate and 2, 4-D tank mix. At planting, we’ll clean up with some glyphosate and Prowl and we’ll band Reflex in the row. After cotton gets up, we’ll first use Staple over it. Then, if we’ve had any morningglories or escaped pigweed, we’ll use Envoke over-the-top. We come back and lay it by with Layby Pro under the hoods. Depending on bermudagrass pressure, we might use a grass material.”

If Edgar gets behind, he adds MSMA to the Staple. “If we can get the residuals up front working, everything else falls into place. We can also use glyphosate for regrowth control and it’ll take care of any late weeds.”

For insect control in conventional cotton, he begins with 5 pounds of Temik for nematode control. Reniform nematodes have been a problem in Edgar’s fields, and rotating cotton with corn has helped significantly, he says.

“That rate of Temik lasts for thrips, and we’ll try to stay out of the cotton in June if at all possible. We’ll treat for aphids only if necessary. During the last week of July or the first week of August, we’ll be ready to go for plant bugs and clean up any worms we might have.”

Edgar says his insect scout is very conservative but ensures they stay on top of any situations that might arise. “It’s a prescription program — we’re timing it and treating each field individually, only when it needs it.”

This year, Edgar is planting saved seed of the DPL 491 variety. He has also grown the Bronco variety from Texas. “Seed availability is certainly a factor with growing conventional cotton,” he says.

e-mail: phollis@farmpress.com