As Cotton Prices Wane, Growers Turn To Precision Ag

From Cotton Grower Magazine – December 2015

Trends2016 Web  Examining some of the key trends that could impact cotton in 2016.



There’s no denying it. When it comes to trending topics in cotton production, precision agriculture is at the top of the list.

Cotton Incorporated recently conducted a comprehensive nationwide study to back up that claim, and the results were predictable as they were remarkable. Of the nearly 1,000 American cotton producers who were polled, 84% utilized at least one precision product or practice on the farm in 2015. That number has increased rapidly in recent years. But the Cotton Incorporated study also showed how beneficial precision management can be in terms of yield and overall profit.

“For example, we’ve found that people who are using soil sensors are getting more cotton per inch of water applied,” says Dr. Ed Barnes, Senior Director, Agricultural and Environmental Research Division at Cotton Incorporated. “And on top of that, their overall yields also appear to be higher than their neighbors who aren’t using this technology. We’ve seen that across a couple different technologies.”

One such technology or practice that has demonstrated a strong likelihood to increased yields has been grid-soil sampling. Consequently, Barnes points to it as the precision practice that has become most popular recently among American cotton producers.

“I think we’re over 46% adoption rate among those farmers who participated in our survey, who said they’re using that one practice,” Barnes says. “So that’s showing that that’s taking off, and it makes sense because people are finding that when you can fine tune the fertility in your field, it’s going to pay off. You’re either going to save fertilizer by not applying where you have low-yield potential, or, in those areas that are better producing, people are finding those areas are under-fertilized.”

As Barnes says, in the age of yield monitors and closely-watched averages, farmers can forget how much variance can occur within a single field.

“We forget, when you say ‘Oh I average two bales,’ well there are parts of that field that are doing much better than that. And so, that part of the field is pulling off more nutrients, so if you don’t replace those nutrients, that portion is not going to be the winner every time. That’s where we’re finding a lot of value in precision fertility management.”

Ultimately, soil sampling and precision fertility management are only two practices that offer immediately beneficial return on investment to American producers. Barnes has been vocal over the past year in an effort to extol the financial virtues of precision agriculture during difficult financial times.

“With the low price of cotton, we have to be very precise with our inputs, because there is no room for waste,” Barnes says. “One of the things I’ve learned from looking at where people make profit maps of the field – where you take your yield times the price of cotton and subtract out the variable costs – you’ll see parts of the field that are losing money and parts that are making money.

“It kind of dawned on me – if you can cut the inputs to those parts of the field that are losing money, you’ve got a lot less chance of going under water if you can eliminate that negative income part of your operation.”

The time is now, Barnes says, for cotton growers to take that first step into precision agriculture, if they haven’t already.

“When we’re on these really tight margins, this is actually when the technology pays the most – or is the most important.”