Robert L. “Bob” Hutchinson
For more than 100 years cotton has been the most important crop grown in northeast Louisiana. At one time cotton was grown all across the state, but over the years it has become increasingly concentrated in the northeast part because of more favorable environmental conditions and because other crops, especially sugarcane and rice, are preferred in south Louisiana. For most of the communities in northeastern Louisiana, cotton production and related businesses constitute the foundation of the economy.
The largest acreage ever produced in Louisiana was planted in 1930 (1.95 million acres), and the lowest acreage was in 1975 (310,000 acres). In the last five years, acreage has ranged from 610,000 to 849,000, with an average farm gate value of more than $270 million annually. About 80 percent of the state’s cotton crop is grown on the alluvial soils bordering the Mississippi and Ouachita Rivers and the loess (wind-deposited) soils of the geological formation known as the Macon Ridge. About 20 percent is grown on Red River alluvial soils in northwest and central Louisiana.
Louisiana’s cotton farms have changed dramatically in the past 50 years. In the early 1950s, the average cotton farmer grew fewer than 20 acres of cotton. During the 1960s and 1970s, farms became much more mechanized, and effective pesticides were developed to reduce the need for manual labor for tillage, planting, weed control, insecticide application and, perhaps most important, harvesting. The mechanical cotton picker revolutionized the harvest process and increased the efficiency of cotton farmers. By the late 1970s, a single farmer was able to manage more than 185 acres of cotton. The trend toward larger and more mechanized farm units has continued, and today a typical farmer grows 400 to 500 acres
of cotton with little seasonal labor.
Cotton yields have also increased gradually during this period. Average yield in the early 1950s was about 375 pounds of lint per acre compared to about 660 pounds for 1997 to 2001. Some farmers consistently produce more than 1,000 pounds per acre.
LSU AgCenter’s role
For many years Louisiana’s cotton producers have depended heavily on the Louisiana Agricultural Experiment Station and Louisiana Cooperative Extension Service of the LSU AgCenter to supply research-based information to increase yields, reduce production costs and minimize losses from a myriad of insects, weeds, nematodes and plant diseases.
Most of the applied field experiments are conducted at four branch research stations—Northeast at St. Joseph, Macon Ridge at Winnsboro, Red River at Bossier City and Dean Lee at Alexandria. The research conducted at these locations is often performed in cooperation with researchers from other research stations and scientists from several campus-based departments. Numerous basic or fundamental research projects are conducted in the AgCenter’s campus-based departments and laboratories. In addition, much of this research is conducted in cooperation with researchers from other land-grant universities as well as state and federal agencies.
Most of the funds needed to support AgCenter cotton research projects are provided by Louisiana’s taxpayers through appropriations from the state legislature; however, cotton producers in Louisiana provide significant funding to support research through a check-off program jointly administered by Louisiana’s cotton producers and Cotton Incorporated. In addition, significant grant funding is received through joint projects with other universities, private companies and various government agencies. Grant support from all of these sources has grown significantly and has become an indispensable part of the cotton research budget.
AgCenter researchers and educators have done a commendable job of solving problems, developing new technology to increase productivity and helping producers incorporate these tools into their farming systems. This relationship has helped Louisiana’s cotton farmers remain competitive through many difficult challenges.
Nevertheless, the cotton industry now faces many serious challenges and problems that must be met and overcome if this industry is to remain viable. Plant breeding and variety testing programs must be fully funded and equipped to develop new germplasm and varieties that are adapted to Louisiana’s environmental conditions, resistant to damage from various pests, with high yield potential and that exhibit fiber traits demanded by modern high speed textile manufacturing machinery. Cotton fiber data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Cotton Classing Office in Rayville, La., suggests that fiber length (staple) has declined in the past 15 years while coarseness (micronaire) has increased. As a result, in recent years a high percentage of our cotton is discounted heavily because the fibers are too coarse and too short. Cotton breeding programs that emphasize fiber quality improvement as well as yield can address these problems effectively.
Numerous agronomic studies have refined recommendations for fertilization, irrigation, planting date, row spacing, crop rotation, cover crops, tillage and other inputs to improve the biological efficiency of cotton while minimizing production costs. Although great strides have been made, considerable research is needed to fully realize the economic and environmental benefits of these practices.
New weed and insect management programs that use transgenic (genetically engineered) cotton varieties and new classes of pesticides have provided powerful tools to minimize economic losses from weeds and insects while enhancing safety to humans, animals and the environment. Furthermore, in the past 15 to 20 years, AgCenter researchers have gained national and international recognition as leaders in the development of cotton production systems, including conservation tillage, that conserve natural resources and protect the environment. Much of this research has been used to develop best management practices, known as BMPs, that have been adopted by most crop producers. More research is needed to integrate all of these practices and technologies for the maximum benefit to producers and the environment.
Many challenges lie ahead that threaten the viability of the cotton industry in Louisiana and across the Cotton Belt. Because of increased international production and competition, prices for cotton have reached the lowest levels in several decades, while prices for inputs have risen steadily. Strict environmental regulations have reduced the number of effective pesticides available to producers to manage insects, weeds and insects. To make matters worse, the new materials are typically much more expensive than the older materials and have a much narrower spectrum of activity and shorter residual efficacy.
The Boll Weevil Eradication Program administered by the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry has been extremely successful in eliminating this pest from much of the state’s production areas. In 2004, the entire state should reach weevil-free status and enter a maintenance program to prevent re-infestation. Although this program is a tremendous asset to cotton producers, most of the insect management guidelines will need to be revised to address new pest concerns in post-eradication cotton fields.
Louisiana water quality regulations will likely place additional constraints on producers and require adoption of strict conservation tillage practices and precision inputs of fertilizers and pesticides to minimize adverse effects on water bodies. Increased competition from foreign producers and synthetic fibers will require cotton breeders to develop new cotton varieties with improved staple length, fineness, strength and uniformity. Increased environmental regulation and expense of pesticides will require geneticists and breeders to develop transgenic varieties that resist damage from a wider range of pests and allow the use of safer and more economical weed control programs. Finally, newly initiated precision agriculture research in Louisiana will help producers target expensive inputs to specific areas in fields that provide positive net returns rather than applying these inputs to areas less likely to provide a positive return. This research has tremendous potential to increase profitability of producers while reducing the need for pesticides, fertilizer and other inputs.
Cotton research programs of the past have helped to increase yields and profitability of cotton while conserving our soil and water resources. Future research programs will continue to develop new technology to address the challenges as long as adequate funding is provided to support these efforts. The greatest beneficiaries of these efforts will be the consumers of all the products derived from cotton lint and seeds and the numerous communities in north Louisiana, where economic survival depends on cotton production, ginning and warehousing.