Dining on hefty servings of fried catfish and iced tea, area cotton producers pondered their future at what has become an annual rite of passage before the growing season — the East Alabama Cotton Production Meeting, held this year at Henny Penny's Restaurant in Marvyn.

The meetings, cover all facets of cotton production and are intended to help producers “stay on top of the myriad of changes taking place in the U.S. cotton industry,” according to Jeff Clary, a retired Alabama Cooperative Extension System agent who is still working part-time to keep growers abreast of new technology and production practices.

One primary concern among many growers is making the transition from a production system based entirely on cotton to one in which cotton and peanuts will be grown in tandem.

Harvest timing will be critical, says Dale Monks, an Extension crop physiologist.

“Peanuts need to be dug out at the right time. Otherwise, you're not going to end up with anything,” Monks says. “With cotton, you're not going to lose anything if you don't harvest it at the right time, but you may lose out on quality.”

This will require careful advanced planning and variety selection, he stresses.

Herbicide selection, he says, is another important consideration.

“Weed control is a critical issue with peanuts,” Monks says. “But growers need to be careful about these herbicide choices because the wrong selection may prevent them from planting cotton behind peanuts the following year.”

One other challenge facing cotton producers is the speed with which new varieties are becoming commercially available — a factor that is making it harder for growers to evaluate them.

Monks says growers need to make a special effort to establish their own test plots or work closely with companies and Extension agents to learn as much as they can about these new varieties.

Another major concern is the damaged caused to cotton yields from nematodes, a soilborne pest, and one that cause more than $400,000 in damage to U.S. cotton producers in 2004, according to Bill Gazaway, a retired Extension plant pathologist who continues conducting research on behalf of Alabama growers.

Unfortunately, Gazaway says, no truly nematode-resistant cotton varieties are available to growers and likely won't be for another five to 10 years.

On the positive side, Mike Patterson, an Extension weed scientist, expressed enthusiasm for three new technologies — Envoke, Liberty Link and Valor — available this year that will help growers better manage weed problems.

Envoke, Patterson says, will offer more flexibility for growers who have opted to stick with conventional cotton varieties rather than the far more prevalent transgenic varieties.

On the other hand, Valor will provide growers of conventional and transgenic varieties alike with another useful tool for directed spraying just before harvest.

Finally, Liberty Link, a transgenic product similar to Roundup Ready cotton, may be especially useful if growers begin to encounter weed resistance to glyphosate.

Also on the positive side, Bob Goodman, an Extension economist, stressed that U.S. cotton growers, despite their many challenges, have continued to make steady strides in production efficiency.

“I don't know all of the factors involved, but it's obvious that yields keep going up even though acreage and fertilizer use have remained steady,” Goodman says — a fact, he believes, that bodes well for farmers as Congress begins taking up discussion on the new farm bill.

Ron Smith, retired Extension entomologist who updated growers on technological advances in insect control, was followed by Charles Mitchell, who discussed the implications of nitrogen costs.

About 45 cotton producers from throughout the region attended the meeting, which was co-sponsored by Extension and Stoneville Seed Company.