Georgia has deep roots in the cotton industry that now reach around the globe. In fact, Georgia first planted cotton near Savannah in 1734, making it the first colony to produce cotton commercially. Today, Georgia’s cotton farmers are taking into account global trends when making planting decisions right here at home.
“We’re affected by worldwide fashion trends in addition to price and trade issues,” says Richey Seaton, executive director of the Georgia Cotton Commission. “Today, consumers are choosing more athletic-style apparel. Cotton has lost a lot of market share.”
Cotton was Georgia’s most valuable crop in 2015, earning a production value of more than $694.4 million, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But even in a challenging global cotton marketplace, the biggest challenge is in the fields right at home.
“Cotton input costs, especially for weed control, is our No. 1 concern,” Seaton says. “Our farmers used to spend $20 to $25 per acre on weed control. Now we’re spending $60 to $100.”
However, industry leaders are paving the way to address such issues.
The higher weed control cost has a name: Palmer amaranth, commonly called pigweed. “If you don’t control Palmer amaranth, you don’t pick your crop … you don’t even see your crop,” says Stanley Culpepper, University of Georgia Extension specialist and weed scientist.
Palmer amaranth’s legendary growth rate makes it tough to eliminate with chemical crop protectants, which must be applied when pigweeds are small. Otherwise, pigweeds keep growing in spite of the herbicide applied, building up genetic herbicide resistance.
Georgia was the first location in the world, in 2004, to confirm Palmer amaranth’s resistance to glyphosate, a primary weed control tool for Georgia cotton farmers in the 1990s and early 2000s. Culpepper and the university cotton team met the challenge of weed resistance head on.
“At that time, our emphasis was to better understand the biology of Palmer amaranth,” Culpepper says. “By doing this, it would allow us the ability to develop effective programs exploiting the pest’s weaknesses.”
The scientists determined the best controls in small-plot research and then validated those methods in larger-acreage work.
“We have probably conducted over 50 on-farm cotton studies across a dozen or more counties since 2004,” Culpepper says. “These on-farm studies are the backbone of our current recommendations.”
Researchers put every option on the table, including hand weeding.
“In 2014, 92 percent of our growers hand weeded their cotton crop. In 2015, it was 88 percent,” Culpepper says. Improved crop protectant chemistry means fewer pigweeds to hoe. “The positive is hand weeding cost per acre is about 40 percent less statewide compared to 2010 through 2012.”
That meant Georgia farmers spent an average of 15 to 25 percent less for all weed control in 2015, compared to 2010 through 2012. However, the input cost to control this pest must further be reduced if state growers are to remain sustainable in the future.
The lower costs point to a major benefit of the cotton team’s research: utilizing integrated management programs by implementing cultural, mechanical and chemical control tactics while protecting the consumer and our environment. One goal to reduce management cost is to reduce herbicide input costs. Total herbicide use in Georgia’s cotton fields has declined since 2012, according to university surveys. And new products and methods are being developed to be even more environmentally and user friendly, says Culpepper, who works with both herbicide manufacturers and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to identify product impacts.
The aim is to keep Georgia cotton farmers competitive with no negative impacts, Culpepper says.
“My goal is to develop sound and sustainable weed-management programs for our growers while being certain that no agriculture technology will negatively impact the consumer, the user or the environment in which we and our children live.”
Toward that goal, Culpepper speaks at 45 to 50 cotton grower meetings per year and takes many thousands of phone calls related to weed control – all while conducting field research to stay ahead of pigweed. He says he couldn’t do it all without the network of county Extension agents who disseminate the university’s research-based recommendations to local farmers.
Seaton says the research and education program makes it possible for Georgia farmers to beat the pigweeds as they compete in a changing global market.
“Our (Extension) cotton team is simply an outstanding group of folks,” he says.