With cotton prices where they are, producer Bret Palmer has no choice but to push his crop for every pound he can get.
Variety choice, fertility, good ground and irrigation are keys that keep this approach turning out the bales.
Palmer, a seventh generation producer, and his father, Terry, farm a little over 4,000 acres of corn, cotton and soybeans, about 2,600 acres of which is in cotton. The farm, around the Holly Island/Nimmons community in Clay County in northeast Arkansas, is about 90 percent irrigated, employing both center pivot and furrow irrigation.
Cotton is the most consistent crop that Palmer produces, and that’s a big reason why it’s still in the mix, despite lower prices. “Cotton produces very well in Clay County,” Palmer said. “Ten or 15 years ago, you might not have thought so, especially this far north. You might have thought cotton was too volatile, you would make a killing one year and you lose it the next.
“Over the last 10 years, it’s actually one of the most consistent crops I grow. Last year, the heat hurt the corn and the soybeans.”
While new technologies and strong cotton varieties have provided the potential for big yields, the rest is up to Palmer. “You need intense management, and you have to spend a lot of money on it.” And with the price of cotton down from historic highs of a year ago, “you have to push for everything you can get.”
On heavier ground, Palmer will disk and hip up. “I try to plant on a tall bed. I also want to have enough fertility in the field to make a 1,500 pound yield. We do soil tests and go by the recommendation.”
On sandier ground, Palmer will rebed the ground and sow wheat or rye in every other row with an air seeder on the back of the bedder. The cover provides wind protection for young cotton seedlings.
Palmer’s cotton varieties this season were NG 1511 B2RF, AM 1550 B2RF, ST 4145 LLB2, ST 5445 LLB2, FM 1740 B2F, DP 0912 B2RF and ST 5458 B2F. The latter two varieties are planted on about 70 percent of Palmer’s acreage.
Watches variety trials
Palmer watches the University of Arkansas official variety trials closely for new varieties that might do well on his farm. He was impressed with NG 1511 B2RF, which he planted this spring on a field of Fountain silt loam soil, his best soil type. It yielded over 3 bales per acre.
Palmer planted the variety on April 27, hill dropped at three seeds per hill or around 45,000 plants per acre. He applied 110 units of nitrogen per acre and used a total of 58 ounces of plant growth regulator per acre. He also made an application of C-Cat, a carbon catalyst which contributes to overall plant health and helps with root development.
“When the cotton took off, it really took off,” Palmer said. “We hit it three weeks in a row with plant growth regulator early. We had two shots on it before we even had a bloom. After that third shot, it settled down, and we started getting a fruit load.
“After the heat and dry weather, it just kind of settled down. For the last month, we gave it two shots of plant growth regulator and that was it. Normally I would put 80 ounces of plant growth regulator on the ground like this.”
Irrigation pumps were running almost constantly this summer, watering on a schedule of every 4 days to 5 days. Furrow irrigation is run down every other row, primarily to keep fields from becoming too saturated when rains follow irrigation. That wasn’t a problem this season.
“It was the driest May we’ve ever had in Clay County. Here in the last month or month and a half we have caught some rains, but the majority of this crop was made with irrigation.”
By mid-September the plants had fallen over from the boll load, and had had one shot of a defoliant put out by a ground rig with fenders, “which did a good job,” Palmer said.
Glyphosate-resistant Palmer pigweed is a growing concern for Palmer and other producers in Clay County. To keep it under control this season, Palmer put down Cotoran pre-plant, went with two shots of Dual and ran his hooded sprayer one time. On heavily-infested ground, Palmer will put out Reflex two weeks prior to planting.
Palmer and his neighbors have also been cooperating in a zero tolerance program for resistant pigweed. “We do the best we can, and we are winning the battle. We’re all pretty much on the same page when it comes to keeping it under control.
“You have to stay on top of weed control. You don’t think about killing pigweed, you think about keeping it from coming up.”
Palmer follows the advice of former University of Arkansas weed scientist Ken Smith, whose research on pigweed seed has been extensive. “The one weakness of it is that if you can keep the fields clean for two years, 95 percent of the remaining seed will be non-viable. So keeping it clean can make a big difference.”
Pigweed was very intense on a patch of mixed ground Palmer planted to AM 1550 B2RF, which does a little better on Palmer’s tougher ground. They planted a cover crop on the field prior to planting and ran a hooded sprayer twice during the season. “That seems to have held it. We didn’t have to chop it.”
By mid-September, the field that already had a second shot of defoliant, and was close to harvest.
The Palmers were pleasantly surprised with lint yields across their farm this year — in fact, Palmer thinks this could be his best cotton crop ever. In mid-October, the field of NG 1511 B2RF was looking like the winner, with a turnout of 39.7 percent and a lint yield of 1,647 pounds per acre.
As long as Palmer can make those types of yields, there’s a future for cotton here, he says. “There is probably going to be an acreage reduction around here next year, but this county has always been heavy in cotton. It grows well here, and it’s what has got us where we are.”