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Cotton temporarily falls out of fashion as crop

Cool, wet May causes farmer to turn to soybeans

Staff writer

Farmer Lewis Unruh of rural Peabody skipped planting cotton this spring, and he doesn’t know of any other farmers in Marion County with cotton fields this year. It marks the first time since his father, Charles, planted cotton in 1983 that the family hasn’t grown any cotton.

Unruh wasn’t able to plant in late May like he usually does because it was too wet and cool.

Soil temperatures should be at least 65 degrees to plant cotton he said. In its place, he planted more soybeans this year.

Unruh said he planted about 150 acres of cotton in a typical year.

A good yield would be 500 to 600 pounds per acre. Cotton requires careful attention to produce the best yields.

“You can’t plant it and forget it like some other crops,” he said. “You have to scout it for pests and other things.”

A cotton plant’s overall health has little correlation to its cotton production, Unruh said.

He compared it to growing tomatoes in a garden.

Sometimes a gardener can have a big plant that looks healthy but produces few tomatoes.

Elsewhere in the garden, he might have a small, struggling plant that produces a lot of big tomatoes.

Similarly, a cotton field can look like it is almost dying but produce a bumper crop.

Following a stretch of 100-degree temperatures, Unruh said he wished he could have planted some cotton.

Cotton can tolerate high temperatures much better than soybeans, he said.

“Cotton is more of a hotter, drier-weather crop,” he said. “We’re kind of at the northern edge of cotton country.”

The nearest cotton gin is 80 miles away in Winfield, Unruh said. Because of the lack of infrastructure for cotton farming, he sells his harvest through a marketing pool.

Cotton is different in several ways from the staple crops of Marion County — wheat, corn, and soybeans.

For one, it requires different equipment.

Planting and spraying can be done with many of the same implements as any other crop, but other tasks require unique machines.

“You need specialized equipment for harvesting,” Unruh said.

Harvesting machines pull the bolls off cotton plants in a process almost like combing the stalks, he said.

After the bin is full, the cotton is transferred to a module builder, which packs the loose cotton into a large bundle ready to be taken by trucks to a cotton gin.

As readers may remember from history class, Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin, which is used to remove the seeds from cotton.

Another important difference between cotton and other crops is that cotton can wait to be harvested.

“When any crop is mature, it’s time to harvest,” Unruh said, but cotton harvest can be delayed with a much smaller drop in yield and quality than other crops.

Last modified Aug. 12, 2010

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