When it comes to growing cotton, “putting the pieces of the puzzle together is a lot harder now than it used to be,” says veteran cotton grower Ronnie Lee.

Lee and fellow cotton growers Kent Wannamaker of St. Mathews, S.C., and Taylor Slade of Williamston, N.C., sat down during the recent Southern Cotton Growers and Southeast Cotton Ginners meeting in San Destin, Fla. to talk about the rigors of growing cotton these days.

It’s no secret that cotton lost over a million acres over the past two growing seasons — most of it in the Southeast. What’s coming in 2009 remains to be seen, but these three growers seem confident cotton will be in the cropping mix in the Southeast for a long time.

All three growers are partners in cotton gins. Each grower got into the cotton business after Roundup Ready technology and reduced-tillage practices made it relatively simple to grow cotton. The decade of the 1990s saw King Cotton restored to grandeur in the Southeast.

Slade, who grows cotton and peanuts, says cotton was a staple on his family farm until the boll weevil put his grandfather out of the cotton business. Slade began growing cotton again in 1991.

“In 1991 some friends and I built a cotton gin. It was a monumental year — we had to learn to run a gin and how to grow cotton. Every year we put seed in the ground and every year is different,” Slade says.

The North Carolina grower says he is planning to continue with about 1,200 acres of cotton and another 200 acres of peanuts in 2009, if things don’t change dramatically.

“Our farm has been in operation since 1712. We survived a war of independence, a civil war, world wars and the Great Depression, and I am confident we will survive the challenges we face today,” Slade says.

Ronnie Lee grows 4,000 acres of cotton, 600-1,000 acres of peanuts and 1,000 acres of corn. Like Slade, Lee and some friends built a cotton gin and started growing cotton in 1995.

Since then Lee’s three sons have joined him in the farming operation, and they have expanded to a large diversified farming operation that includes a cow-calf operation.

Wannamaker’s family grew cotton since the family came over from Germany a couple of generations back. They ultimately sold their share in a cotton gin and put most of their land in the CRP program.

Determined to stay in farming, Wannamaker raised hogs for 12 years and during that time started growing some cotton. His first cotton crop was only 350 acres and was planted in 1995.

Since his return to cotton farming, Wannamaker has grown as much as 2,000 acres of the crop. In 2009, he will grow about 1,000 acres of cotton, 800 acres of peanuts, and about 1,000 acres of corn, soybeans and wheat.

The roller coaster ride of input costs and cotton prices in 2008 may have been a fatal blow to some cotton growers, but for those who survive the current tough times, the future world of cotton production may be a better place.

Efficiency and hard work are the common denominators for success in such trying times, according to each of the three growers.

“In early 2008, when we saw fertilizer prices edging up we took a closer look at potash — it’s a constant management chore. We managed nitrogen more exactly for 2009 and looked for the lowest level phosphorus fertilizer we could get,” Slade says.

“We also split our fertilizer application — half at pre-plant and half in late June. We were side-dressing nitrogen for the plant and keeping potash levels up for boll development — there is nothing easy about using high priced fertilizer — it takes good management,” he explains.

In 2008, we booked some of our cotton in January, February and March—then it was all over. I thought the futures market would calm down and we would have another opportunity to book the rest of our crop, but it didn’t happen.

“I was nervous for a while because we got in a drought situation, and I wondered if I had booked too much cotton. We ended up having a good year and had about 70 percent of our cotton booked at favorable prices,” Slade says.

In 2009, fertilizer prices are down, but cotton prices are simply in the tank. We’re going to grow some cotton in 2009. We need cotton to support the gin, but more importantly it’s still a better option than dryland corn and a good rotation crop for our peanuts, Slade says.

“Our situation is different in southwest Georgia — we have to manage nigtrogen and phosphorous — while potash pretty much takes care of itself, says Lee. “We grid map most of our land and use variable rate application. One thing we’ve found is that using the grid maps and variable application of lime is a big advantage. If you get the pH right, it’s a lot easier to manage your fertility program,” the Georgia grower says.

One of our biggest challenges is rotating crops to stay away from weed resistance and a whole bunch of fertility problems with our main crop, which is cotton, he adds.

“In Georgia, we used to grow corn at break-even or a loss and made it up with extra pounds in our peanuts. Now that corn has made an economic comeback, we are seeing some benefits of rotating more corn with our peanuts.

“Two years ago we started growing corn again. We ran a yield monitor on our cotton, and we feel like cotton behind corn adds an extra 150-200 pounds of lint. We have had a lot of cotton behind cotton, so there is a big boost from corn.

“We can do a much better job of handling the resistant pigweed by lengthening our rotation schedule. Peanuts and cotton alone make it real difficult to rotate herbicide chemistry, which is critical in our part of the country because of pigweed resistance to a number of herbicides,” he says.

“Despite the benefits of rotating crops, the cost of doing so is becoming prohibitive. “You can plant all those crops with the same planter and spray them with the same sprayer, but a peanut digger can’t go in a cotton patch and a cotton picker can’t go in a peanut field. And, a corn combine can’t go either place,” Slade adds.

“Weed resistance, fertility problems, rotation schedules, irrigation schedules, crop insurance, and the list goes on and on. It’s just a lot harder now to put all these pieces of the puzzle together,” Lee emphasizes.

“I was probably one of the first growers in the Southeast to go to do one-pass strip-tillage in a big way. I used to brag that I could get an acre of cotton out of the ground with a disk and a gallon of diesel fuel. Now, the latest Extension recommendation for pigweed control is to break the land and turn it under — we’re going to burn some diesel fuel if we go back to tillage in a big way, he adds.

“We paid for technology to make growing cotton and other crops easier — we paid to make the pieces of the puzzle easier to put together. Now, we have the high cost of technology, but we are having to pay many of the pre-technology costs, too,” Wannamaker says.

The South Carolina grower was an early user of GPS technology, grid sampling and other labor and time conserving technology. “We have done about all we can do to make growing cotton easier,” he says.

“We used Roundup Ready technology for easy weed control. We used Bt technology for easy bollworm and budworm control. Now, we have glyphosate resistant pigweed and stink bugs are a big problem in Bt cotton. The future of growing cotton is going to be a lot more complex than the past,” he contends.

Lee says it is a blessing in many ways to have his three sons and their families living and working in the farming business. “They work long hours and take huge economic risks, and I know they could have chosen career in which they could have 9-5 jobs, but farming is what they love.

“We are considering buying two new John Deere cotton harvesting systems for our farm. It’s a huge financial investment. I think it will pay off on the economic side, but I know it will pay off in terms of improving the quality of life for my sons,” Lee concludes.

Each of the three Southeastern cotton farmers agree there is a good future for cotton for those who are dedicated to the industry and willing to take the risks associated with growing cotton in a global market.

e-mail: rroberson@farmpress.com