High Hopes for Tennessee Cotton

It was standing room only at the 2017 Cotton Focus, a preseason seminar held each February at the West Tennessee AgResearch and Education Center. Considering the downward trend of Tennessee cotton acres, the high attendance was surprising to some…but not Tyson Raper. An assistant professor in Plant Sciences and the UT Extension Cotton Specialist, Raper has been predicting a cotton comeback. He sat down with us to explain why.

Why the optimism about cotton this year?

Although price per pound is relatively stable, the industry has seen substantial increases in genetic yield potential, stability, and fiber quality in recent years. Good weather during the 2015 season coupled with better genetics led to the highest average yields ever noted for the state. This record was again broken during 2016; state average yield from the 2016 season was 1104 lb lint / ac. This is an absurdly high number considering our state is predominately dryland. Our state average yield from 2016 was actually greater than several nearby predominately irrigated states. While 2016 was characterized by a general increase in acres by those who typically grow cotton, 2017 will see many producers new to the commodity enter the market.

What excites you about the 2017 crop season?

Rumors of the development of 2,4-D tolerant cotton and dicamba-tolerant cotton first emerged nearly ten years ago. The 2017 season marks the first year the industry will be able to make labeled auxin-herbicide applications to traited varieties. Introducing auxins into these systems provides much-needed relief to the few herbicides that are still effective for midseason weed control. Combine that with big acreage increases and producers new to cotton beginning to grow the crop, 2017 is off to a very exciting start.

Auxin herbicides have been a hot topic during the 2017 meeting season. What is your advice to growers regarding this new technology?

Stewardship. Growers are very aware of how glyphosate-tolerant cotton altered the production system. Poor stewardship of that technology reversed production practices back into the 1980s, greatly diminishing the value of the glyphosate trait platform. If we fail to properly steward the auxin technology traits, their value will likely decline below that of the glyphosate system within as few as three years. Take home: Follow the label. Use residuals. Follow auxin applications (as needed) with glufosinate. Finally, if an application fails, act quickly.

You have a joint research and extension appointment. Tell us about your research program. Is there a specific project that particularly interests you?

The UT Cotton Agronomy program is continuing to expand in order to provide the information producers within the Midsouth need to increase the efficiency and productivity of their production systems. The program is focused on five main topics: variety testing, fertility/nutrient management, drought stress/irrigation, crop protection/management, and precision agriculture.

Producers still struggle to convert site-specific data into actionable information. The remote detection of nutrient stress through inexpensive sensing devices has continued to be an area of particular interest to me. Thanks to support from the national arm of Cotton Incorporated, I have continued to pursue this objective while at the University of Tennessee. Additionally, I’ve partnered with Mike Buschermohle, professor, Biosystems Engineering and Soil Science, and Shawn Butler, PhD student in Plant Sciences, to evaluate the use of drones to drive replant decisions. Largely due to an additional grant through Cotton Incorporated, preliminary data collected from trial work during 2016 suggests rapid stand assessments from aerial platforms are feasible. I can speak for the team when I say we are very excited about this project and the tremendous impact it could have across the Cotton Belt. Precision agriculture still represents one of the largest areas of untapped potential for increasing the sustainability and efficiency of cotton production.

Ginger Rowsey