This story also appears in our University of Missouri College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources’ Agricultural Research Center Magazine. Stop by your local Research Center to pick up a copy!
The rich delta soil in the Bootheel region of Missouri provides ample opportunity to grow a variety of crops – some of which may surprise individuals who live in the Show-Me State.
The University of Missouri College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources’ Fisher Delta Research Center studies several of those unique crops, which includes cotton. Missouri actually plants nearly 300,000 acres of cotton and ranks eighth in the United States in cotton production.
All of that cotton is principally produced and harvested in just five counties in the Bootheel region.
Fisher Delta has more than 5,000 cotton plots spread across that area, which includes 330 acres directly at the Center.
“It’s an exciting time to be involved in cotton,” said Andrea Jones, a senior research associate and leader of the cotton program at Fisher Delta.
Jones, who joined the Center in the late 1990s and took the reins of the program in 2010, does a little bit of everything when it comes to cotton. She works on finding the correct irrigation timings and irrigation patterns for the crop, as well as deciding which herbicides or insecticides should be used. She also monitors the plots for possible diseases. Jones said cotton is very labor-intensive.
The cotton research conducted at the Fisher Delta Research Center involves a number of researchers and partners, as well as collaborations with out-of-state researchers from Tennessee, Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi. The Center works closely with each of these entities to provide the most up-to-date information on cotton.
“Cotton is a core economic crop for the Bootheel, its farmers, the Fisher Delta Research Center and the state of Missouri,” said Trent Haggard, director of the Fisher Delta Research Center. “Andrea does a phenomenal job of providing valuable research for Missouri and the larger Mississippi Delta.”
The team at Fisher Delta also plays a vital role in the cotton research. Individuals from cropping systems, entomology, weed science and the United States Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service combine their efforts to strengthen the cotton research.
For example, Gene Stevens provides his crop production expertise and Jim Heiser lends his weed science knowledge to the projects. Jones also works with Earl Vories, an agricultural engineer with the USDA-ARS in the Cropping Systems and Water Quality Research Unit.
Stevens and Heiser have their own, independent cotton projects as well, showcasing the breadth of research taking place at the Fisher Delta Research Center in terms of cotton.
For cotton to strive, it needs an extended frost-free period and a lot of sunshine. Moderate rainfall is also key.
“I love working with cotton and I know the farmers who raise cotton have a passion for it,” Jones said. “It takes a lot of work, though.”
The Fisher Delta Research Center is located in Portageville, a town situated in New Madrid County. Along with New Madrid, Pemiscot, Dunklin, Stoddard and Scott counties also produce cotton. These five counties are on the northern edge of the U.S. cotton belt.
“Because we’re on the northern edge, the cotton varieties in Missouri are quite unique,” Jones said. “Our goal within the cotton program is to test numerous varieties to see which ones are successful in our different Missouri soils. We want to be able to provide this information to landowners as well.”
The variety trials are the cotton program’s bread and butter.
“This is probably the most unique part of our program,” Jones said. “The data we collect and recommendations that we make are extremely valuable, and they are used by producers and landowners when they make their cotton decisions.”
Jones plants 34 varieties of cotton, testing six different soil types. Two of those are Portageville soils – clay and silt. Jones runs two tests on the Portageville silt soil, one dryland and one irrigated. The other three locations are in Senath, Sikeston and Clarkton. The soil in the Senath location is similar to the soil in Arkansas. Of all of the soil types that Jones plants in, the Sikeston soil offers the shortest growing season. The Clarkton soil is the sandiest of the three.
Jones has also partnered with two landowners and has plots planted at their farms.
There are more than 5,000 cotton plots planted across the Bootheel region.
“There are a variety of soil types along the Mississippi River, so it’s important to test in as many soil types as we can,” Jones said. “The partnerships we have are also incredibly important. Those plots give us a good look at cotton in a ‘real-world’ setting.”
The planting season for cotton takes place from mid-April to mid-May. The harvest season runs throughout the month of October, sometimes going into early November.
Jones tests several variables within each plot, including yield, leaves, length and turnout. Each variety is ranked on those variables, with Jones taking an average and showcasing which cotton variety is most successful. She then lists each of the 34 varieties with their ranking in each soil type.
“Our research is completely unbiased, meaning we’re having a tremendous impact across this part of the state,” Jones said.
To test the impact of planting the correct varieties, Jones compares her rankings.
The lowest-ranked cotton varieties are rarely planted by landowners, due to the fact they have low performance scores. Those varieties that finish toward the bottom are ‘cut’ from her impact project.
Jones breaks the rest of the varieties into two groups, each with 10 varieties. The first group includes the top 10 varieties for that given year. The second group includes the next best performers, numbers 11 through 20.
Jones then compares the average number of pounds produced between those two groups. For example, the top 10 varieties produced an average of 1,225 pounds of cotton. The next 10 varieties produced an average of 1,122 pounds, meaning there was a 103-pound difference between the two groups. Cotton sells for 74 cents per pound. The 103-pound difference times 74 cents equals $76.22. That means a landowner could lose $76.22 per acre when using a variety from the second group instead of the top group.
“That’s a huge number and a lot of monetary loss,” Jones said. “That’s why it’s important to pick the correct variety for your land. You want to get the most value out of your property.”