MOUNT JULIET, Tenn. (DTN) -- Last year's cotton crop was the healthiest the Reiss family had ever grown.
"The leaves were the size of my hand and just green, dark, lush," said Brett Reiss, who farms with his family just outside of Kismet, Kansas, in the southwest corner of the state. The lush cotton was a stark contrast from the wrinkled, crisp leaves of years past, when the crop was 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 a tool to prevent damage that was previously out of their control. Just a few years earlier, John Deere brought new efficiency to cotton harvest with its stripper baler. These solutions to cotton's top production challenges and better profit potential than the region's mainstay crops made springtime decision making easy. Plant cotton.
Kansas farmers intend to sow a record 130,000 acres this spring, up 40% from last year, according to USDA. It's almost 100,000 acres more than what farmers grew in 2016. While Kansas is part of a larger trend toward cotton -- acreage is expected to grow 7% to 13.5 million acres -- farmers say it's more than a one-hit wonder.
"I really think for us, cotton is here to stay," Reiss said.
COTTON'S RISE STARTS WITH DECLINING WATER
Cotton became fashionable in Kansas in the early 2000s. Water levels in the Ogallala Aquifer were falling, and farmers realized cotton could pencil in a profit.
"Cotton takes about a third of the water as corn to produce the same amount of revenue in most years," Jerry Stuckey, a cotton farmer and manager at Northwest Cotton Growers Co-op Gin, told DTN. "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/acre. Cotton, at 50 cents a pound, yielded about 1,000 lbs. per acre, also producing a gross revenue of $500/acre.
That year, cotton acreage doubled to 80,000. Dunn, Stuckey and others invested in a gin, rather than haul their finished product all the way Hereford, Texas.
"I always knew if you follow the water, when they lose their water, the main crop -- if you start down in Texas and work all the way up -- cotton is their main crop," Stuckey said.
Kansas's cotton acreage peaked at 115,000 in 2006, before falling to just 47,000 acres the next year as cotton prices fell and the biofuels boom breathed new life into corn prices.
Not all farmers abandoned cotton, and stagnant prices were far from the only struggle.
"We suffered through lots and lots of 2,4-D damage the last 15 to 16 years," Dunn said.
In Kansas's dusty southwestern corner, farmers rely on traditional 2,4-D formulations to manage weeds after harvesting the winter wheat crop and to control broadleaf weeds in grain sorghum. While it's an essential part of the cropping system, the older formulations are prone to volatize and can physically drift for miles, landing on vulnerable crops like cotton.
Stuckey said nearly all of his acreage would get hit at least once every year, and in some years, the same field would be damaged three different times. 2,4-D drift affects new growth, 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."
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 same drift and volatility issues as older formulations, but they don't mince words. "We're planting the 2,4-D cotton for the drift," Dunn said.
He gives drift tolerance some credit for last year's yield bump, but adds a wet growing season benefited all crops in his area. With zero damage to his crop, Dunn harvested nearly 1,500 pounds per acre, compared to the more typical 1,000 lbs.
Landon Lukens, PhytoGen territory manager for southwest Kansas and parts of Oklahoma, said nearly 100% of the cotton planted in Kansas this year will include the Enlist cotton trait, but that shorter season varieties more tailored to Kansas's climate and elevation are also helping drive demand.
"I think a lot of these guys, even if the wheat price was a little bit better, I think now that we have the trait and the technology, the acreage shift would still be there, but just maybe not as significant."
IRRIGATED WHEAT DRIES UP
The Reiss family used to plant corn, soybeans and wheat under irrigation, with wheat going on acres that are short of water, due to pumping volume or allotment issues.
"The wheat prices are just horrible, and we just haven't had really great wheat yields, so we've actually just stopped growing irrigated wheat due to the low prices and have gone back to growing cotton," said Reiss.
Lukens said cotton's primarily replacing wheat and grain sorghum acres. Irrigated corn still pencils in a profit for some growers, but Dunn said even that's tight. It takes about between $3.80 and $4 a bushel to break even on corn. In his area, basis -- the difference between cash and futures prices -- is usually positive, but it's been negative much of this year due to 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 said. In his area, it's 6 to 8 cents negative.
Kansas farmers have been spared the costly pests that plague growers in the warmer, southern climates and they can usually tank mix insecticide with an herbicide can usually treat thrips and fleahoppers before they cause serious damage. Cotton also uses less nitrogen than corn.
"We have a chance to make more money today with cotton than any of the other crops," Dunn said. "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."
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, and it's one of the reasons why cotton fell out of favor on the Reiss farm. After last year's success in growing cotton, they decided to invest in a new John Deere stripper baler, which picks and wraps cotton into a round bale, cutting the harvest labor team by more than half.
"It allows us to be a lot more efficient with our time and equipment," he said. "We can be doing other things in the fall now, strip tilling, doing those other things that need to be done, that we like to do in the fall instead of all hands on deck during cotton harvest."
The Reiss family bought the only stripper baler allocated to their dealership's network, and a shortage of available equipment could complicate this year's harvest.
"It's going to be an issue," Dunn said. "Most of the cotton growers here that have equipment are more than happy to help other people. We want cotton to work."
Some growers could also find the cost of the new equipment prohibitive. New stripper balers can cost upwards of $700,000.
Dunn and his son helped the Reiss family pick their cotton last year, but Reiss says that's only part of the reason why he owes Dunn, and other farmers that stuck with cotton through all the tough years, a debt of gratitude.
"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."
And while new harvest equipment is in short supply, the four gins in Kansas are expanding capacity and warehouses are adding storage, investments that showcase their confidence 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 said. "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."
To read more on cotton acreage expansion across the nation, visit the Minding Ag's Business blog, here: https://www.dtnpf.com/…
To see the Reporter's Notebook video about the cotton expansion, see: https://www.dtnpf.com/…
Katie Dehlinger can be reached at Katie.firstname.lastname@example.org
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