Breakdowns in both insecticides and herbicides in the Southeast are forcing many growers to make an extra pass across their cotton fields and creating some renewed interest in growing conventional cotton.
Interest in conventional soybeans has been slower to develop, primarily because prices the past few years have been high enough to provide some cushion for growers to pay for the added cost of genetically modified seed.
Economics is also a driving factor in the renewed interest in going back to the pre-glyphosate resistant era of growing crops in the Southeast.
Cutting input costs in both cotton and soybeans is an ongoing challenge that is critical to taking advantage of high grain prices and to survive low cotton prices.
The current cost for a bag of cotton seed loaded down with traits runs between $400 and $500.
Costs for some of the newer, better yielding conventional varieties is often one-fourth or less the cost of transgenic seed.
Among the tests shown at a recent Soybean and Corn Field Day at the Edisto Research and Education Center in Blackville, S.C., farmers showed the most interest in a test comparing conventional and GM soybean varieties.
Though the soybeans had not been harvested at the time of the field day, Clemson Corn and Soybean Specialist David Gunter says the conventional varieties seem to be holding up well in terms of weed and insect control.
Seed Source Genetics in Texas has released some new conventional cotton varieties in the past few years that look promising for growers in the Southeast, including UA222, a high yielding, high quality conventional variety licensed to the company by the University of Arkansas this year.
Last year Americot released UA48, marketed as AM UA48. Though it was sold in very limited quantities this year, UA48 did make it into several research trials at universities across the Southeast.
(For a look at what growers are saying about UA48, see Conventional cotton variety looks promising for producder).
“We have some growers in Virginia who are saying, I have fields with a medium to low yield potential, and I want to get by with as little cost as I can.
“With these new conventional varieties, they can get good results with seed that cost about $100 a bag,” says Virginia Tech Researcher Ames Herbert.
The Catch-22 Herbert says is that growers using conventional varieties have to be very precise managers of insects and weeds.
“We are not promoting switching to conventional varieties, but there are growers who are interested in seeing how these varieties perform versus more popular varieties that contain various genetic traits,” Herbert stresses.
In three years of testing in Virginia, Herbert says his research team has seen good control of bollworm and stink bugs using two applications of a number of insecticides. This is important, he stresses, because many growers must come back across their fields with an additional insecticide application because the length of protection from seed treatments is limited.
Weed scientists are finding a similar scenario in weed management because of the proliferation of weeds with resistance to three of the four most commonly used families of herbicides labeled for use on cotton.
The natural thought process is, if I’m going to have to go back and apply additional insecticides and herbicides to make Bt varieties work full season on insects and additional herbicides to compensate for resistance issues, why not plant conventional varieties and save the technology fees?
So far in Virginia and North Carolina conventional cotton varieties have not yielded as well as some of the popular transgenic varieties. However, research in other parts of the Cotton Belt, using UA-48 has shown yields comparable to many of the more popular transgenic varieties. And, UA-222 is supposed to be an even higher yielding variety.
For many cotton growers to get interested in growing conventional cotton, the yield potential of these varieties is going to have to increase, most cotton growers agree.
According to reports from the University of Arkansas, where both UA48 and UA222 were developed, these varieties do kick up both yield and quality potential.
Seed for both varieties were grown in limited quantities in 2011, and few were available outside the Delta. This year, seed production was up and yield and quality are reportedly good. So, there may be some supply for growers in the Southeast, who want to try one of these conventional varieties.
At the urging of several growers, the University of Arkansas sold about 1,150 50-pound bags of UA48 seed for planting in 2011 while pursuing a licensure agreement. Texas based Americot, Inc., bought the rights and is marketing seed as “AM UA48,” a non-transgenic conventional variety, for planting in 2012.
Tom Barber, University of Arkansas Extension cotton specialist, says UA48 yield reports from Arkansas growers varied, but many reported excellent yields.
The seed sold in 2011 was from cotton grown in a single field in Texas, and it had a relatively low germination rate, which required a higher seeding rate, but the problem was not variety related, he said.
If a grower has land on which he knows he can’t produce much more than 700 pounds of lint per acre, one of these higher yielding conventional varieties may be a good fit, Herbert says.
Trend began in Alabama
The initial interest in conventional cotton varieties came in 2009, when a dozen or so cotton growers in Alabama planted several thousand acres of conventional seed. Though the acreage hasn’t grown significantly, there seems to be a niche for these varieties.
Richard Edgar, who grows cotton in central Alabama, was one of the first to experiment with the conventional varieties on part of his farm.
The Alabama grower says moving away from transgenic varieties was dictated by economics. “We have dryland cotton and problems with reniform nematodes. We just didn’t have the yield that would allow for the technology fee.
Edgar adds that after the boll weevil eradication program came along, he no longer had the need for the Bt. And, now that resistant weeds are a problem, the glyphosate technology has diminished in terms of value,” he adds.
The next group to try conventional cotton in a major way was a small group of growers in North Carolina.
In 2011, in North Carolina, researchers led by Entomologist Jack Bacheler found that controlling bollworms and stink bugs bumped yields for conventional cotton up to around 800 pounds of lint per acre in some parts of the state.
This is a significant yield bump over conventional varieties grown without insect protection, which averaged about half the yield of test fields treated with Karate Z or Leverage.
Bacheler says they got better than 90 percent insect control using both Leverage and Besiege and better than that with an experimental insecticide.
Though Karate Z didn’t produce the same level of insect control, tests treated with the insecticide did yield comparable to other treatments in the North Carolina tests.
For many cotton growers, planting conventional cotton is a step backwards and for some younger growers, planting transgenic cotton seed is the only cotton they’ve ever planted.
From a public perception standpoint, going back to conventional planting, which requires more use of pesticides may be a bad thing. Cotton is already being targeting by environmental groups as using more synthetic pesticides than any other crop.
Some activist groups contend cotton growers worldwide use nearly 25 percent of the total insecticides used worldwide.
Increased use of fuel and water are other negatives often thrown out by anti-farming groups, which all too often form the basis of public opinion about farming practices.
Cotton acreage showed a dramatic dip in acreage in 2012 in the Southeast and some contend a similar drop may be in store for the industry in 2013, unless the current price structure improves. Whether continued price volatility will create more niche needs for conventional cotton varieties remains to be seen, but it appears more options will be available to growers next year.