Cotton Links


It Pays To Be An Efficient Farmer

By Jeff Silvertooth
Tucson, Ariz.

  • Earned B.S. degree in agriculture from Kansas State University and M.S. and Ph.D. degrees from Oklahoma State University
  • Current Head of Department of Soil, Water and Environmental Science, University of Arizona
  • Former cotton Extension agronomist, University of Arizona
  • Participant in Leadership Development Program sponsored by USDA.

In 1987, I began my lessons with cotton when I came to the University of Arizona (UA) after accepting the position as an Extension/research agronomist. For an agronomist, cotton is a great crop to work with. Working in Arizona, I have also had the benefit of working in irrigated production systems and with both upland and American Pima cotton (two separate species).

As we know, cotton is very dynamic with respect to its growth and development patterns, and it can gain and/or lose fruit in response to environmental conditions or management. The variation in growth, yield and fiber quality can be tremendous from year to year. This provides a lot of opportunity and a lot of challenge in the management of a cotton production system.

The irrigated systems that I have worked with in Arizona and the desert Southwest are typically very intensively managed systems with high costs of production, very narrow margins of profit and very narrow margins for error. Thus, efficiency has been a key objective that is paramount to our production systems in this region and in my own agronomic research and education program.

We commonly think of efficiency in crop production systems on three levels: 1) economic (cost-benefit relationships), 2) agronomic (crop input and response relationships) and 3) environmental (short and long-term impacts of our production systems on the surrounding environment). These three definitions or aspects of efficiency are not mutually exclusive. In fact, I have learned that it is possible, and in fact, important to address each of these three classes of crop production efficiency simultaneously.

Since I began working with cotton 21 seasons ago, there are tools or techniques that were developed and/or modified for use in cotton production systems to help us achieve the goals of better efficiency in our production systems. I would like to point out a few with which I have had some direct involvement, and I think have contributed to our efforts to improve efficiency.

For example, in the late 1980s there was a lot of interest in cotton crop modeling. The battery of basic measurements that have become common in many cotton producing areas (fruit retention, height, node ratios, nodes above white flower, nodes above cracked boll, etc.) have provided new indices that can give us easily communicated terms to identify and describe crop stage of growth and condition.

Most importantly, a lot of work was done in the past 20 years to use these basic plant measurements to understand cotton crop needs in relation to plant growth and crop condition.

Since 1995, when transgenic varieties were first introduced, we were part of a rapid transition in cotton production systems. These transgenic varieties have provided outstanding tools for managing certain pests. However, in my view, one of the greatest benefits from the use of transgenic varieties is a somewhat secondary effect, and this is a very positive environmental impact.

In my experience the cotton industry is very well organized in comparison to many other crop production systems in the United States. Similarly, I have found that the general lines of communication among the research, education, and production communities within the cotton industry are intact and function very well. As a result, the exchange and transfer of information among these sectors of the industry provides a progressive environment conducive to the incorporation of new methods and technologies.

I think our overall cotton production efficiencies have improved over the past 21 years through the development, adoption and integration into production systems across the U.S. Cotton Belt. However, it is safe to say that we still have a lot of room for improvement.

We need to think of the sustainability of our crop production systems in both a short and long-term sense. As the stewards of our land and water resources, those of us working in cotton and other crop production systems need to be able to demonstrate our ability to use these resources efficiently. Thus, it is incumbent upon us to continually seek, develop and incorporate new methods and technologies in our efforts to manage cotton production systems in an increasingly efficient manner.

Contact Dr. Jeff Silvertooth at silver@ag.arizona.edu or (520) 621-7228.


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