By Amy Bickel The Hutchinson News firstname.lastname@example.org
Tom Lahey had high hope for his cotton crop as it emerged this summer on his southwest Kansas farm.
Early signs showed it should have been a bumper one.
By mid-July, however, he realized something was terribly wrong.
He and others across southwest Kansas are estimating they lost 40 to 50 percent of their cotton due to 2,4-D drift from farmers spraying the herbicide on their milo crops.
"In all the years we planted (cotton), this is the worst," Lahey said of spray drift, but he stressed his damaged crop wasn't a result of poor management by his neighbors.
"It was just a perfect storm that caused it to happen," he said.
Lahey, who serves on the board of the Northwest Cotton Growers gin at Moscow, said he expects almost every cotton acre in his corner of the state to see yield declines. He estimated the cooperative to gin 60 to 65 percent of the crop they were expecting in June.
According to Kansas State University, cotton is one of the crops most susceptible to 2,4-D. Humidity and wind speed can cause it to spread to fields several miles away. Some formations of the chemical can move as a vapor.
The spray drift damage, however, is just one of several hits to the Kansas cotton industry, which has been struggling to regain acreage since it spiked at more than 115,000 acres in 2006. The crop touted for its profit margin and lower water use continues to lose acreage to corn and other commodities.
Farmers planted more than 4 million acres to corn last spring, compared to the 26,000 acres of cotton that will be harvested this fall. According to the Kansas Agricultural Statistics Service, acreage is down more than 50 percent from last year.
Last week, the agency also estimated Kansas cotton production at 37,000 bales, down 47 percent from last year.
1,500 pounds an acre
Lahey said southwest Kansas' acreage was largely irrigated because of drought, which also cut production for the Moscow plant. He eliminated all his own dryland acres, but said that conditions should be better for next year.
Corn prices also influenced acreage, said Gary Feist, who manages the Southern Kansas Cotton Growers Co-op gin at Anthony and Winfield.
Feist, however, sees promise for cotton in future years, a crop he has promoted for nearly two decades. The corn market, at present, is a long way from the $7 price range it was at when farmers were making planting decisions last winter and spring, he said.
Moreover, despite low acreage and drift issues in southwest Kansas, Feist said weather conditions in his area helped produce a high-yielding crop on what acreage is in production.
The higher yields will nearly cover the roughly 40 percent decrease in acres in his territory.
"We had a little too much rain at Winfield, but we are seeing a lot of tremendous yields and we still have quite a bit to strip," he said. "I budgeted for 15,000 bales for our gin last year, and I've moved it to 18,000-plus bales. But it just keeps getting better. I just keep moving my estimate."
Feist said one farmer near Winfield had a dryland field that set a record at 1,521 pounds - more than three bales - an acre.
"We're not going to average that," Feist said for the region-wide average. While some dryland fields will average more than 1,000 pounds or better, he expects the gin's average to be around 800 to 900 pounds an acre. Normal dryland yields are about 700 pounds an acre.
In the Pratt area, Roger Sewell, manager of business development for High Plains Cotton, which has a gin in Cullison, said his territory is down 45 percent for acreage. Yields are decent, although it's not the "monster crop" the region had in 2012.
He expects the Cullison operation will gin around 24,000 bales this year.
"Corn prices had a huge bearing on us at planting time," Sewell said, but he added that with corn prices currently just above $4, "I think we'll be back up next year. We'll see several thousand acres go into cotton production."
Herbicide-tolerantcotton on horizon
As for Lahey, one of the first in southwest Kansas to try cotton, he's not giving up on the crop.
Farming in an area reliant on the declining Ogallala Aquifer, Lahey was looking for an alternative as his wells began to decline to levels not suitable for corn production.
He started growing cotton about 15 years ago.
"The next best option is cotton when you have a 250-gallon well on a 120-acre circle," he said. "We can have as much income as a good 200-bushel corn crop. We couldn't have that kind of income planting corn there, but with that much water, we can raise cotton."
He admits this season was disappointing. His son had two circles damaged extensively by 2,4-D, followed by a hailstorm.
"We had no best yields this year because everything was affected," he said.
Crop insurance covers weather-related damage, but not damage from spray drift.
"There was enough money on cotton to take care of expenses," he said, "but we didn't have any product left to share with Main Street."
Such incidents don't help expand acreage. Some farmers don't want the risk of spray drift hurting yields. Lahey said that could change by as early as 2015, when Monsanto is expected to release Dicamba- and 2,4-D-tolerant crops.
"They think in 2015 we will see a lot more cotton production because producers won't have to worry about the field being affected by herbicide drift as bad," he said.
Monsanto had a 2-acre test plot on his farm this year, but due to planting error by the company, the crop didn't make it to harvest.
Come to think of it, Lahey said, it would have been a good year for testing such a variety.