Cotton Comeback In Kansas

As acreage of the traditional Southern crop surges, farmers insist this time it's here to stay.

Katie Micik Dehlinger
By  Katie Dehlinger , Farm Business Editor
After a successful cotton crop, Brett Reiss purchased a John Deere stripper baler to strip and wrap cotton into round bales, and cut harvest labor, Image by Expression Photography

When the Reiss family reintroduced ‌cotton to its crop rotation in ‌2017, they kept their expectations ‌in check. It turned out to be the healthiest cotton crop they’d ever grown.

“The leaves were the size of my hand and just green, dark, lush,” says Brett Reiss, who farms with his family just outside of Kismet, Kansas.

The lush cotton was a stark contrast to the wrinkled, crisp leaves of years past. At that time, it wasn’t uncommon for the crop to be hit, sometimes more than once, by 2,4-D drift from nearby summer fallow and milo fields.

When the Enlist cotton trait, which conveys tolerance to 2,4-D, arrived on the market in 2016, it gave farmers such as Reiss a tool to prevent the damage previously out of their control. In addition, a few years earlier, John Deere brought new efficiency to cotton harvest with its stripper baler. These new tools made the springtime crop decision easier for some who wanted to bring cotton back to their farms.

The Reiss family used to plant corn, soybeans and wheat under irrigation. The wheat went on acres short of water because of pumping volume or allotment issues.

“The wheat prices are just horrible, and we haven’t had really great wheat yields. We’ve actually stopped growing irrigated wheat due to the low prices, and we’ve gone back to growing cotton,” Reiss explains.

They aren’t alone. Earlier USDA reports anticipated Kansas farmers would sow a record 130,000 acres of cotton this spring, up 40% from last year’s 93,000. This is almost 100,000 acres more than was planted in 2016. Kansas’s cotton acreage peaked in 2006, at 115,000 acres, then fell to just 47,000 acres the next year as prices fell and the biofuels boom breathed new life into corn prices.

Today, Kansas is part of a larger trend toward increased cotton acreage, now expected to grow 7% nationwide to 13.5 million acres. Farmers say it’s more than a one-hit wonder in the state, and Reiss believes it will continue as part of his operation.

LESS WATER, MORE PROFIT. For decades, farmers in Kansas have seemed to plant cotton on and off. Acreage has been dependent on price and other crop options. But, today, as water levels in the Ogallala Aquifer are falling, some realize cotton can help them pencil out a profit.

“Cotton takes about a third of the water as corn to produce the same amount of revenue most years,” notes Jerry Stuckey, a cotton farmer and manager at Northwest Cotton Growers Co-op Gin. “It’s more water efficient as far as dollars per inch of water.”

Kent Dunn began planting cotton on his farm, near Moscow, Kansas, in 2002. At that time, corn was $2.50 a bushel, and if his corn yielded 200 bushels per acre, he’d make about $500 per acre. Cotton, at 50 cents a pound, yielded about 1,000 pounds per acre, also producing a gross revenue of $500 per acre. Dunn, Stuckey and other producers in the area have even invested in a gin rather than haul their crops all the way to Hereford, Texas.

DRIFT DAMAGE DISCOURAGED. Not all Kansas farmers abandoned cotton. Many held out through stagnant prices and fought against drift damage to the crop.

“We suffered through lots and lots of 2,4-D damage the last 15 to 16 years,” Dunn says. In the state’s southwestern corner, farmers rely on traditional 2,4-D formulations. It helps them manage weeds after harvesting winter wheat, controlling broadleaf weeds in grain sorghum. The older formulations were prone to volatize and could drift for miles, landing on vulnerable crops like cotton.

Stuckey recalls nearly all of his cotton acreage would get hit at least once every year. Some seasons, the same field would be damaged three different times. 2,4-D drift affects new growth in cotton, so the plant has to outgrow the damage before it can start putting on new squares. “We’d end up with junk when it came to harvest,” he says.

PhytoGen cotton varieties with 2,4-D resistance got a lot of attention when they hit the market in 2016. Farmers say the Enlist Duo and Enlist One herbicides (the only 2,4-D products approved for over-the-top application in cotton) control weeds well and don’t have the drift and volatility issues as older formulations.

“We’re planting the 2,4-D cotton for the drift [tolerance],” Dunn says. He gives this some credit for last year’s yield bump but adds a wet growing season benefitted all the crops in his area. With zero damage to his cotton last year, Dunn harvested nearly 1,500 pounds per acre compared to the more typical 1,000 pounds.

Landon Lukens, PhytoGen territory manager for southwest Kansas and parts of Oklahoma, says nearly all cotton planted in Kansas in 2018 includes the Enlist cotton trait. He adds shorter season varieties more tailored to the state’s climate and elevation are also helping drive interest in the crop.

Lukens says cotton is primarily replacing wheat and grain sorghum acres. Irrigated corn still pencils in a profit for some growers, but Dunn adds even that’s tight. It takes between $3.80 and $4 a bushel to break even on corn. In his area, the basis (the difference between cash and futures prices) is usually positive, but it’s been negative much of 2018 because of high stocks, as well as cheap wheat and sorghum.

“Cotton pencils out very well. Right now, cotton is 70 to 75 cents, depending on your basis,” Dunn says. In his area at press time, it was 6 to 8 cents negative.

“We have a chance to make more money today with cotton than any of the other crops,” he adds. “If it works out, it’s great. We’re all gambling when we plant a crop to some extent. Barring a hail or funny weather, or something, we should raise a good crop.”

EASIER HARVEST SEASON. Cotton harvest used to be a labor-intensive process involving a crew of five or six people to run the picker, the boll buggy and the module builder. That labor requirement is one of the reasons cotton fell out of favor on the Reiss farm. After last year’s success growing the crop, however, they decided to invest in a new John Deere stripper baler. The harvester, with a cost upwards of $700,000, strips and wraps cotton into round bales, cutting the harvest labor team by more than half.

“It allows us to be a lot more efficient with our time and equipment,” he says. “We can be doing other things in the fall now … instead of all hands on deck during cotton harvest.”

The Reiss family bought the only stripper baler allocated to its dealership’s network this year. A shortage of available harvest equipment for this year’s cotton acres could complicate things.

Dunn and his son helped the Reiss family pick its cotton last year. He says a shortage of equipment is going to be an issue but not an insurmountable one.

“Most of the cotton growers here that have equipment are more than happy to help other people,” he says. “We want cotton to work.”

Reiss adds he and other producers feel a debt of gratitude to those who have stuck with the crop over the years. “Really, without them, it makes me step back and wonder … would cotton even be an option for us if those few guys hadn’t stuck with cotton? You shut a gin down, you shut a factory down, it’s hard to open that factory back up.”

Far from losing capacity, the state’s four gins are expanding, and warehouses are adding storage. These investments showcase confidence that cotton’s comeback will last for more than a season or two.

“We’ll always grow wheat on dryland just because, really, a lack of options, but I think cotton is here to stay,” Reiss says. “It’s another tool in the toolbox. It’s not the answer, but it’s a piece of the puzzle for us. We’re excited about the future of cotton in southwest Kansas.”


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