Craig Williams knew it was a risk to a planting cotton in a short-season environment. But what isn't in farming?

Williams is one of many High Plains farmers facing low prices and high irrigation costs. With corn prices in the $2/bu range and the need to apply 20-25" of irrigation water to make a corn crop, profits are past history.

But Williams, Sunray, TX, and others feel cotton, which may require half as much supplemental water as corn in some years, can be spun into a better bottom line.

“Cotton in the northern Panhandle? No way,” some growers may say. Not Williams, whose yield approached 1½ bales in 2001. Not bad in a dry year — he got by with applying only 6" of irrigation water while neighboring corn fields required 24" or more.

Even though '01 was dry, vital heat units were above normal, in the 1,900-2,000 range. About 1,700 heat units are required to produce a one-bale crop. In the cotton-king Lubbock area, about 175 miles south of Sunray, heat units normally top 2,200.

Historically, at the Texas A&M University/USDA research farm outside Amarillo, heat units top 1,750 lbs six out of 10 years. And in the Dalhart, TX, area, which has attracted numerous Midwestern growers due to its abundance of irrigation water, the 1,700 level has been reached only 50% of the time the past 50 years. But the units have been there the past two years.

High elevation above 3,500' and subsequent cool temperatures hold down the growing season to about 180 days. That's 15-20 days shorter than in normal cotton areas. However, the Texas A&M research station in Etter, produced cotton yields that surpassed 600 lbs/acre, or about 1.2 bales for seed varieties tested in recent years.

Williams likes those numbers and is willing to throw the dice with cotton if he keeps making a good crop. “We made more off our cotton crop than we have on corn the past few years,” he says.

He planted his cotton in early May, when soil temperatures were a consistent 60°. Cotton was planted in 36" rows with a population of about 36,000/acre, below the 60,000 recommended by Texas A&M. “I used a buster planter and didn't get the stand I wanted,” he says. “We are planting more in '02.”

He irrigates the cotton with a center-pivot system. “I am pre-watering this year because of the dry winter, and will probably apply about 10" of water during the growing season,” he says. “We like this program because we don't have to grow corn after corn. We use much less water.”

Texas A&M's James Supak, who recently retired as head of extension agronomy, says “managing cotton for earliness” is essential, especially in short growing season areas.

“Cotton should be planted when the 2" soil temperature has a 60-62° average over 10 days,” he says. “High-quality seed is also a must. Look for seed treated for protection from seedling diseases and with at least an 80% standard germination rating, based on both warm and cool test germination results. Don't plant over five or six seeds per foot of row on 38-40" rows, and make sure you have a firm, moist seedbed.

“And don't let short-season cotton stress early for water,” he adds, since at least 80% of the crop is made when the plant reaches first bloom.

Greta Schuster of West Texas A&M University in Canyon says seed treatments may require two or three different fungicides to control a variety of soilborne diseases.

“Keep the three S's in mind when growing cotton … soil temperature, seed quality and seed fungicide treatments,” she says.

“If you get past the first two to three weeks and get a good root system established, you can bypass a lot of soilborne disease problems.”