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UGA Research: Cotton Farmers Losing Money

Georgia farmers who delay picking their cotton could lose money by sacrificing the crop's quality, say University of Georgia cotton experts.

Many of the state's farmers grow both cotton and peanuts, which mature at about the same time. They harvest peanuts throughout September and October and pick cotton from mid-September into December.

Handling both harvests at the same time can strain farmers' resources. The peanut harvest coincides with the time they apply chemicals to remove the cotton plants' foliage and stop growth.

"Right now, most farmers don't have the luxury of handling the majority of peanut and cotton harvest at the same time," said Don Shurley, an economist with the UGA College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences. "Most farmers leave the cotton to get in the peanuts."

Getting Bad Grades

Shurley and Craig Bednarz, a CAES assistant professor of cotton physiology, began a study three years ago to find out how much growers lose by postponing cotton defoliation and harvest.

The cotton plant opens its bolls, the part that produces the lint, for about six weeks. Soon after, Bednarz said, the quality and potential yields decline. The bolls don't all open at once. Some will be open and subject to decline, while others continue to develop.

When quality declines, cotton mills lower the price they pay the farmer. In some cases, they even refuse to buy some of the cotton. The mills want high-quality cotton that can more easily be processed into yarn.

Last year, deductions due to poor quality cost state growers $40 million, Shurley said. The 1999 crop was worth about $440 million, according to the Georgia Agricultural Statistics Service.

Timing Versus Quality

"The main reason we're doing this research is that the fiber properties in the state aren't as good as some mid-South cotton," Bednarz said. "Harvest timing has something to do with this."

"We got peanuts to pick, and we got cotton to pick," said Roy Roberts, an Ocilla, Ga., farmer. Because of limited manpower and time, Roberts will usually opt to pick his peanuts first and delay his cotton harvest.

But Roberts, who also manages a gin, has seen cotton quality decline over the years. He worries about the state's position as a leading producer.

"I'd like to see us do a better job on staggering out the peanut and cotton planting, going back to having a good reputation for producing a good quality crop," he said. He pointed to the need for a timely harvest and a uniform crop.

Bednarz said the research could help farmers find a more profitable balance between cotton and peanuts for harvest resources, such as labor, equipment and chemical applications.

Best Timing

At the Coastal Plain Experiment Station in Tifton, Ga., Bednarz scheduled harvest at 13 stages of crop maturity.

He began harvest-aid applications when 10 percent of the bolls were open and continued every week for 13 weeks. Each plot was mechanically harvested following defoliation.

By adjusting income to compensate for losses to grade deductions, the 1999 economic analysis shows the per-acre dollar value increased from week 1 to week 6. It peaked at $684 per acre.

Research in 1998 showed the best time to defoliate cotton was when the crop had 60 percent open bolls. In 1999, the profit peaked at about 70 percent open bolls.

Bednarz said the research results are still early. The weather changes and affects cotton differently from year to year, he said. So multiple-season data will be needed before they can set a stable guideline for farmers.

(Brad Haire is the former news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

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