Tom Lahey has long had a soft spot for cotton, so he’s gratified to see so many new farmers taking a long hard look at growing it now.
He’s a founding member of the Northwest Cotton Growers Cooperative Gin at Moscow, Kansas, which has fielded inquiries this spring from farmers as far west as Baca County, Colorado, who are interested in growing the crop.
While adding elevation adds to the challenge of growing what is originally a tropical plant, he said with only 800 feet difference between them, it’s probably worth considering.
In fact, he believes cotton production will continue to expand north and west in the years to come.
“I don’t know why not,” he said recently from a field where he was checking on an irrigation sprinkler. “They used to say you couldn’t raise it north of Lubbock, then it went up to Dumas, and eventually all the way up here to Kansas.”
As wheat has fallen out of favor, due to high carryover inventories and low prices, cotton is grabbing more acres. Kansas farmers intend to plant twice as much cotton this year, close to 200,000 acres. The state’s cotton acreage previously topped out at 115,000 acres back in 2006.
New, better-adapted varieties and Freedom to Farm legislation that decoupled cropping decisions from federal farm payments first brought cotton to Kansas in 1996. Gins sprang up to meet the demand for processing, and a statewide producer association was formed in 2003.
But Lahey has remained more committed to cotton than many of his neighbors. Cotton acreage in the region shrank when grain prices started booming a decade ago.
Now another cotton revival is underway, and growers and ginners have several reasons to think this one could be longer lasting.
In Southwest Kansas, Lahey said the biggest positive is the introduction of 2,4-D resistant cotton, which helps to protect it against herbicide drift. The herbicide, to which it is highly sensitive, is used widely in High Plains summer fallowing systems.
But harvesting technology has also changed in ways that reduce labor and improve the ease of hauling and storing it. The industry has moved rapidly to adopt combined picker-balers that do both operations in a single pass. The resulting round bales are wrapped tightly in a plastic covering — usually bright yellow — that is highly impervious to rain and wind and helps preserve fiber quality.
Each round module typically represents the equivalent of anywhere from two to four traditional “bales” of cotton.
New picker-baler machines can cost close to $800,000, and custom harvesting services aren’t cheap relative to grain crops, but the technology is helping to revolutionize the industry.
“I think we’ll see cotton become a more regular crop on more acres out here, just because of those two things,” Lahey said.
Another benefit of cotton for Southwest Kansas is it uses less water than corn.
Last year Lehay raised the equivalent of a 240 bushel-corn crop, profit-wise, on about a third of the water by growing cotton.
“Last year we almost didn’t have to irrigate our cotton, but we watered our corn all season,” he said. “With cotton you can water it a couple of times and still have an economically successful crop, and that’s why we’ve stuck with it over the years.”
Dryland cotton is riskier to produce but it’s gaining converts too, according to Gary Feist, the current president of the Kansas Cotton Association.
Feist manages the Southern Kansas Cotton Growers Gin, based at Anthony, Kansas, which is now in the process of doubling its processing capacity.
“Cotton has adapted to dryland very well here,” he said.
David Bachman, who farms south of the border near Deer Creek, Oklahoma, said he and several of his neighbors grew dryland cotton successfully last year and are planting hundreds of acres again this spring.
“It’s the lowest risk crop out there,” he said, citing favorable crop insurance and the potential to get full price protection with forward contracting. With cotton, he estimated he’s locking in $11 per acre profit minimum, whereas planting wheat or canola leaves $30 to as much as $60 an acre at risk.
Cotton also thrives on late summer heat, unlike soybeans, which have similar profit potential and water requirements but don’t set pods if temperatures get too high, he said.
There is so much new interest in growing cotton in northern Oklahoma that the university’s new statewide cotton specialist, Seth Byrd, will be based at the main campus in Stillwater rather than at the southwest research center at Altus as the position was in previous years. Byrd, who comes from the Texas panhandle where cotton growing is routine, said he plans to work with area growers to help them adapt to the unique challenges of “short-season, primarily dryland” cotton production.
Cotton is management intensive, so it comes with a fairly steep learning curve.
“You can’t let your guard down on it, or it will hurt you bad, because it is an expensive crop to grow,” Feist said. “You have to keep track of it for its whole life, you can’t just plant it and forget it.”
The dramatic upsurge in cotton acreage has posed a challenge for Kansas gins the past two years. The Moscow gin is now in the process of doubling capacity along with the gin at Anthony. Kansas also has two other gins in operation, one at Cullison and another at Winfield.
Farmers can’t collect their payment on cotton until after it has been processed and graded by the gin. The lack of ginning capacity led to processing delays last year. Geist said producers need to prepare for that, and can line up a federal commodity loan if necessary.
“They may need to think about taking a government loan while their cotton is still in the field so they can maintain their cash-flow,” Feist said. “We did a little bit of that last year, but we’re really going to promote it to them this year. It works just like an FSA grain loan.”
Lehay said the challenges only make cotton more appealing to him.
“I enjoy it,” he said. “It’s a fun crop to raise. It’s not boring like corn or wheat.”