Experience has taught Columbus, Miss., cotton producer Roy Weathers one thing about dryland cotton production — the bad years can put you out of business in a heartbeat. That is why Weathers developed a cotton production program predicated on surviving the tough years, even if the bounty isn't quite as good during the optimum years.
“I can't control my price or the weather or the farm bill,” said the producer, who farms a little over 800 acres of cotton. “The only things I can control are my inputs. I farm trying to make sure that I can survive the worst years. I am in survival mode.”
Weathers' survival practices for 2005 included no-till, ultra-narrow-row spacing, conventional cotton varieties and an ample serving of chicken litter for his soils.
It's hard work for Weathers, who is pretty much a one-man operation except at planting and harvest. But he's managed to pay off his debts every year for the past five years and expects to this year, too, although he's still working out some kinks in the program.
For example, this spring when fertilizer prices shot up, Weathers started shopping around for alternatives, eventually settling on an application of chicken litter. “I got hooked up with Charles Mitchell (Extension agronomist, Auburn University), who has been working with chicken litter for about 16 years. He's the guru of chicken litter.
“I found that it's really tough to get a good analysis on chicken litter because it's so variable. But I figured I was getting about $90 worth of phosphate, potash and nitrogen, as well as micronutrients from a 2-ton application. I bought a chicken litter spreader and spread from the middle of March right up to planting time. I saved about $50 an acre.”
But the variability of the litter eventually caused some problems.
“I don't think the levels of nitrogen in the chicken litter were consistent. Some of it had been in a storage shed for about six months, and it had a lot of moisture in it. Anytime organic matter gets wet, it starts decomposition and you start losing nitrogen.”
The result was that most of Weathers' cotton started running out of fertilizer a little earlier than he had hoped. “The logical thing would have been to put out about 100 pounds of ammonium nitrate with a spreader buggy. But if it had have turned off dry, I would not have had the use of the nitrogen. And if the rain held off until defoliation, I would have never gotten my leaves off. So I felt like I was better off just letting the crop make what it could make.
“Looking back, if I had put out a 32 percent liquid with my burndown, I would have made a 2-bale yield all the way across.”
Weathers adopted a UNR production program seven years ago in part to reduce his cotton harvesting costs. Weathers runs two stripper harvesters.
“How much choice do you have?” asked Weathers. “It doesn't matter how many buses and cotton-picking sacks you have, you can't get anybody around here to pick cotton. If you can't mechanize, it's over. So the cotton picker is a necessary evil.”
Strippers cost less than one-half of what spindle harvesters cost, according to Weathers. “I've run one of my strippers for seven crops and it was two crops old when I bought it. We change oil once a year, use about two tubes of grease and burn a belt or two up on the lint cleaner a year. This year, we changed all the saws on the lint cleaner. That's all the work we've done on it.”
The UNR program, cotton drilled on 7.5-inch spacings, has also significantly reduced the length of Weathers' growing season. “The day I plant in May, I'm ready to defoliate that same day in September.”
Seed is the most expensive production input for the producer, who plants about 40 pounds to the acre. But Weathers, who earned a degree in agronomy from Mississippi State University in 1976, is working on reducing those costs.
He has not planted Bt cotton since 1998, opting to go with Roundup Ready-only technology. “I have not had to spray in-season for worms in all that time, because the boll weevil eradication has allowed me to maintain a large reservoir of beneficial insects that eat the worm eggs and young worms. Insects are not my limiting factor. Water has been my limiting factor.”
Prior to the 2005 season, his technology fee for Roundup Ready cotton doubled, prompting Weathers, who has no-tilled his cotton since 1989, to make another change.
“When I put a pencil to it this spring, there was no way I could make money on a crop. I couldn't afford the technology fee. The cheapest seed I could have gotten was $80 a bag, which equates to seed costs of $64 an acre.”
Weathers tried to find the conventional version of the Roundup Ready variety he had been planting. “But it hadn't been produced in two years.”
To put it mildly, that bothered the producer. “The seed industry wants us all to go to stacked varieties because they want to maximize their profits. But that's what I'm supposed to be about. I'm supposed to play my own game, not somebody else's.”
Weathers found a conventional variety, Americot 4207, an early-maturing variety “that won't get rank on me. It's also tight in the bur. I don't want it to string out or fall out in the fall.”
Not paying a technology fee and the savings in seed costs meant Weathers could put $79 an acre into weed control “and still be even with a herbicide-resistant crop.” This year, he spent well below that, $36 an acre.
There were some challenges in the no-till cotton producer's UNR cotton production program, however.
Weathers usually plants a cereal grain cover crop on about half his acres, usually wheat at about a bushel to the acre. “The wheat will stop a lot of erosion and will also help the soil retain moisture and increase my organic matter and establish root channels to loosen the soil.” This year, he will plant all his acres to wheat as a cover crop, weather permitting.
Prior to this season, Weathers burned down with glyphosate, 2,4-D and diuron. “The diuron is cheap, has a long residual and is also a good layby herbicide.”
At planting, Weathers burned down again, going with Gramoxone, Prowl H2O for grass control and a light rate of Ammo for cutworms. “When you plant cotton, it's going to be about 10 days before the worms have anything to eat. So you have a week to kill them with the lighter rate. If the cotton was already up, I'd go with the full rate.”
He planted double-treated seed and added Orthene as the seed was augured into the drill. “We also applied Orthene in the first spraying of the year for early-season sucking insects. If the cotton is not growing off quickly on my second pass through the field, we put another shot of Orthene on. It's cheap insurance for early-season sucking insects.”
Weathers had a few grass escapes after planting, which were treated with Arrow (clethodim) at about $6.75 an acre. He waited a week and broadcast Staple at the 1.2-ounce rate, at $18 an acre. “It didn't get all my teaweed, and there is another weed that escaped, and I'm not sure what it's called. It did get my morningglories, bronzed them up real good.”
At about the eighth true leaf he sprayed Envoke at 0.1 ounce per acre, “which is very economical.” But it didn't get the problem weed either. “I probably should have bumped my rate up.”
But in the end, Weathers doesn't mind trading a little extra time and sweat “to not have to pay $24,000 in technology fees. Next year, I'll go with a conventional variety again, unless there is a reduction in the technology fee. That's a no-brainer.”
The crop received regular doses of plant growth regulator throughout the season to keep plant height in check. At defoliation, Weathers put out Dropp at 1:8 and a generic boll opener at 1 gallon to 4 acres. I put in a little DEF 6 or Folex to get some synergism.”
He waited a week before applying paraquat to prepare the plant for stripping. As harvest was under way, average yields on Americot 4207 were coming in at a bale and a half an acre, according to Weathers, and would have been higher had he corrected his fertility problem.
“I've had a tremendous variation in yield within some fields, primarily due to deer eating leaves and bolls. They devastated a couple of fields. This problem is getting worse every year.”
A Tupelo, Miss., gin has not had any trouble ginning Weathers' cotton, and UNR cotton grades traditionally have been very good. His cooperative, Staplcotn, docked him 1.5 cents because the cotton is stripper harvested. “I'll have a few more burs in my cotton and will get a stalk in it every now and then. But if a gin has enough lint-cleaning capacity, it's no problem. There's no reason behind docking me.”
Weathers has been with Staplcotn since 1981. “They do a good job of marketing my cotton. They're efficient and provide good personal service to the farmer.”
Dockage is not the only bur under Weathers' tractor seat.
“There are so many risks beyond my control in cotton production. It's frustrating. Our farm program is artificially inflating land prices through the conservation programs. It's keeping producers like me, who didn't inherit the farm, from accumulating anything. I'm competing against the government. We don't have a farm bill. We have an absentee landowner retirement program for our landowners.”
These factors have forced Weathers to simplify the goals for his cotton production program. “If I can make a bale an acre, I can make a living. I farm cheap. I farm cotton just like soybeans. And if I can get two weeks of good fruit set and luck up and catch a rain or two, I can make a 2-bale crop.”
Survival mode means different things to different farmers. But for Weathers, it's simple — a farmer who hopes for the best and prepares for the worst is hardly ever disappointed.