Kansas farmers see bright future for irrigated cotton plantings as cotton thrives despite summer drought that crimped other crops, curbed water supplies in state

HUTCHINSON, Kansas , November 14, 2011 () – Farmers who grow irrigated cotton say the lingering drought that decimated crops this summer in southwest Kansas show that their crop is a viable alternative as water supplies continue to dwindle across the state.

While corn is still the overwhelming crop of choice in Kansas, cotton supporters say their crop has a major advantage - it uses one-half to one-third of the water that corn requires, The Hutchinson News reported.

Jerry Stuckey, who grows cotton and manages the Northwest Cotton Growers Co-op gin near Moscow in Stevens County, sees a bright spot in the agriculture sector.

"Especially if it stays dry, where they didn't harvest their corn this year, cotton could pick up a share of the acres," Stuckey said.

The drought was almost as hard on dryland cotton as it was on other crops. Tens of thousands of acres of dryland cotton weren't planted because of the drought. And none of the dryland cotton planted in Stuckey's region - roughly 4,000 acres - germinated.

By comparison, irrigated cotton thrived in the summer's oppressive heat.

Stuckey said some fields under center pivot could yield as high as three bales an acre, or roughly 1,500 pounds. He predicts that irrigated fields with marginal wells, especially those that shared a well with corn, could average two bales an acre.

After spiking at more than 115,000 acres in 2006, cotton acres in Kansas have declined in recent years, mostly because of higher commodity prices for corn. More than 4 million acres were planted to corn last spring, dwarfing the 67,000 acres of cotton planted this year, according to Kansas Agricultural Statistics Service.

However, the cotton crop increased by more than 10,000 acres this year, thanks in part to record-high commodity prices last year.

In south-central Kansas, Gary Feist, general manager of the Southern Kansas Cotton Growers gins at Winfield and Anthony, said his territory would harvest 31,000 acres of cotton this year, an increase of nearly 10,000 acres from last year. Forecasts for next year are for up to 35,000 acres.

However the drought reduced the harvest to only 23,000 bales this year, compared with 31,000 bales in 2010.

"The crop isn't very good," he said, noting that dryland is yielding around 400 to 500 pounds an acre. "But at least we are able to harvest it."

Roger Sewell, manager of business development for High Plains Cotton, which has a gin in Cullison, said several producers in his area took advantage of an emergency permit that allowed them to pump next year's water this year. Those producers probably won't have enough water to irrigate a corn crop next year.

"This water situation is a big issue," he said. "A lot of guys over-pumped their water and cotton is a viable answer to the water issue."

The Cullison gin will gin about 14,000 bales of cotton this year, he said, after drought and hail took half the crop.

Still, Sewell noted, "the irrigation is going to be pretty good and dryland is going to be fairly poor, but that's not bad considering the summer we had."

Near Burrton, Ty Miller, who works on Pardu Farms in Harvey County, said this year's irrigated cotton is probably 1 of the best crops the farm produced. Some of the irrigated crop will yield nearly three bales an acre, he said.

"To grow cotton it takes three things - water, nitrogen and heat," he said, adding that with this summer's excessive heat, "that is why we had good cotton on some of this irrigated ground."

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