Joint project studies cotton’s place in the High Plains

Once solely associated with the old South, plantations and "Gone with the Wind," cotton production has migrated toward the High Plains over the last few years and is on its way to becoming a staple in Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas. Researchers at Oklahoma State University and Kansas State University recognized this shift and have launched a four-year joint research program—funded by a $750,000 grant from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture—to study cotton in the High Plains.

Sumit Sharma, a member of the team at the Goodwell, Oklahoma, research station and assistant Extension specialist in irrigation and water management at Oklahoma State University, said the idea of launching a cotton research project had been discussed at OSU for a several years.

“The water is declining in this region and there is interest in all the native crops with lower water demand and attractive returns,” Sharma said. “Cotton is one crop that emerged as a potential candidate, it’s already produced south of us and we have cotton gins and markets available here. Additionally, in 2018 and 2019 we saw increases in cotton production in the Texas and Oklahoma Panhandles.”

Eventually the researchers at OSU approached K-State to collaborate on the project. Jonathan Aguilar, researcher at the Garden City, Kansas, research station and associate professor of biological and agricultural engineering at K-State, said both Kansas and Oklahoma growers have the same questions about cotton production, so the need for this research is apparent.

“We have producers that are asking us questions and unfortunately, we don’t have the answers to those questions,” Aguilar said. “We want to make sure that when we are promoting cotton in this region and we know what we are talking about in terms of soil health, water usage, impact on the economy as well as its impact on rotation between corn and cotton.”

Additionally, Aguilar said the cotton specialist in Kansas recently retired, so there is no state expert for producers to reach out to if they have questions about the crop. Developing more knowledge of cotton in Kansas and Oklahoma will provide researchers and producers with knowledge that can further the success of this fiber crop.

The scope of the project

One of the inspirations for the project is the declining water levels in the Ogallala Aquifer pose major challenges for farmers reliant on it for their crops.

“We are living in an area that is semi-arid or arid and rainfall is very uncertain and this year has been a good example.” Sharma said. “It has been dry and the only source of irrigation we have is the Ogallala Aquifer.

Sharma said the aquifer runs through 10 states and is a great source of water, but the water table has been declining because the extraction rates are not sustainable.

“It’s a finite source and in some places the well capacities are declining to a point where you can’t sustain crops like corn with one well,” Sharma explained. “Sometimes farmers have to join multiple wells to meet a crop’s water demand. We’re looking for alternatives that can be grown with the available water that we have and can still make revenue for farms. Ogallala is a lifeline for agriculture in this region. Because its declining, we are trying to increase the longevity of the aquifer.”

According to Texas A&M Agrilife, cotton requires 12 to 24 inches of water per acre versus corn’s 24 to 30 inches per acre. In addition, cotton supplements irrigated corn production and actually extends regional irrigation in some cases.

“It could be a win-win situation to have a low-water demand crop and a high-water demand crop and why not see its potential as a rotational crop in our existing cropping systems,” Sharma said. “Corn uses a lot of water and we thought it would be good to see how it does rotating with cotton, so one year we do corn, then next cotton and subject the cotton to different irrigation capacities.”

Sharma said the research teams are in the process of planting cotton and corn for the first year of the project. Apart from the water usage, the program will also address several other topics including sustainability, soil health, and production potential.

“We will also look at economic viability of production in the long-term,” Sharma said. “Will it be a viable strategy to produce cotton in the coming years and what will be the impact of cotton on soil health?”

Sharma said when cotton was planted at the Goodwell station in the past, he has noticed wind has been a problem. When the wind blows much of the biomass drifts away and very little residue is left on the ground to protect the soil.

“We thought it would be interesting to see if we could rotate cotton with something like corn that will leave some cover,” he said.

In addition, the researchers plan to plant common cover crops like wheat, rye, and oats to see how they perform following cotton.

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What can we expect for the future of cotton?

Although no one knows for sure what the future holds for cotton in the High Plains, most agree it is probably around to stay if conditions stay the same in this region.

“There is ample awareness about the Ogallala’s condition among producers, so if the aquifer continues to decline and if the prices are lucrative, I do see cotton production going up,” Sharma said.

Aguilar agreed with Sharma that cotton will probably be incorporated into more farms in Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas.

“I don’t like to speculate too far into the future but based on the water use of cotton and the trend of having more heat units, I think it’s going to be staying here quite a while and probably expanding further,” Aguilar said.

Sharma said the data available for cotton production in the High Plains region is limited, so researchers really do not have a full grasp of the crop’s potential and this project could be the basis for cementing cotton in this region for years to come.

"Cotton requires heat units and north of Interstate 40 we are prone to late or early freezes and that can hurt the crop,” Sharma said. “But the previous studies were mostly based on modeling. Others have projected that this area has the potential to provide the required heat units, but the actual production data from the field of studies is limited in this area.”

Sharma said this project will also have a substantial Extension component as well for producers and other industry professionals to attend field days and learn from data obtained through the research.

“This was identified by our farmers when Kansas went around and asked what they believed should be the vision of Kansas in terms of its water resource,” Aguliar said. “Alternative crops—cotton in particular—was identified by farmers as a solution. We’re excited to be part of this project and that it’s geared toward a common theme of trying to answer producers’ questions across the state.”

Farming sometimes seems to boil down to resiliency, problem-solving and in some cases just plain faith. Throughout the Gone with the Wind film, Scarlett O’Hara faced one trial after another during the Civil War. Even with the welcome news that war had ended, Scarlett was thinking about improving the position of her plantation, Tara, and she turned to cotton to bounce back from starvation and financial ruin, saying, “We’ll plant more cotton. Cotton ought to go sky high next year.”

The High Plains are taking a cue from Scarlett by using cotton to adapt and overcome the cards dealt to agriculture in this region and improve the circumstances of the Ogallala Aquifer and producers looking to incorporate this fiber into their operations. Frankly, they do give a damn.

Lacey Vilhauer can be reached at 620-227-1871 or [email protected].