TURON, Kan. (AP) — Jeff Preisser remembers the year he turned 18. It was 1995, the year his father, Larry, planted his first cotton crop.
Preisser was a senior in high school; he and his younger brother, Kurt, were on the cotton fields after school and on weekends stripping cotton, starting in the fall and ending in the spring. Once the cotton was harvested, the family took each bail to an old gin in Sterling. Preisser called the gin “primitive.”
Preisser Farms was one of the first farms in Kansas to grow cotton in 1995 when the farm bill opened the market. The Preissers have grown cotton ever since. With fields in Reno, Pratt and Stafford counties, the family continues to grow corn, wheat, soy and milo — in addition to cotton.
“Cotton takes more management practices,” Preisser said. “The wheat and grains weren’t making much money.”
Because of monetary gain, more Kansas farmers are growing cotton. Cotton crops line the Route 54 corridor and meander across the southern third of Kansas — all the way from Grant and Stevens counties to Cowley and Sumner counties, and as high up as Marion County. Cotton is on the move — replacing other crops in rotation.
Jon Oden, of Sterling Heritage Farms in Lyons, has worked the land for more than a quarter of a century. Every once in a while, he put a new crop in his rotation, decreasing his milo fields. A few years ago, he tried canola. Then he grew sunflowers. He was not happy with either crop, but two years ago, he tried cotton. It stuck.
“I plan on keeping cotton. It works well in our sands,” Oden said. “Last year was a really good year.”
During the past three decades, times have changed in growing and stripping cotton. The Sterling gin closed and four new gins were built. These four Kansas gins either expanded last year or are in the process of expanding — increasing capacity and upgrading.
“Harvest is going like gangbusters,” said Rex Friesen, Ph.D., a consultant for the Southern Kansas Cotton Growers. “The yields look quite good, and the quality looks quite good, as well. I’m really excited.”
Kansas gins are located in Moscow, Anthony, Pratt and Winfield — in Stevens, Harper, Pratt and Cowley counties. The SKCG’s gin in Winfield opened in 1996; their Anthony gin started three years later. As of 2019, there are more than 400 active cotton producers in Kansas.
Jon Nesler, the general manager of the Northwest Cotton Growers Co-op gin said he keeps getting more and more interest from farmers in growing cotton.
Growing cotton is not new to Kansas. The crop was introduced during the late 1800s and remained active through the turn of the century. It made a small resurgence in the 1980s in Sterling and Cowley counties. Farmers in Cowley brought their cotton to Oklahoma to be ginned.
“Cotton is a great rotation crop.” Nesler said. “It’s a way to continue to make money.”
Growing cotton has many benefits. For one, the crop needs less water than many other crops.
“It’s heat tolerant and drought hearty. It is actually quite water efficient. Its return per inch of water supplied is very efficient,” said Stewart Duncan, Ph.D., a northeast area and soil specialist in the department of agronomy at Kansas State University. “The profit potential is tremendous.”
Duncan said cotton handles heat better than soybeans and works well in a wheat/corn rotation.
“The vast majority of our (Kansas) acres are dryland,” Friesen said. “We have nearly the perfect climate for growing dry cotton. It uses 50% to 60% of the water that corn uses. Last year, we had record acres and record crops — somewhere near 100,000 acres.”
Both farmers and experts agree cotton has a different dynamic in the soil. They noticed crops following cotton benefit.
“We have growers tell us they get 10 bushels more on wheat following cotton,” Friesen said. “By growing cotton, we can clean up a lot of weed problems.”
Typically in Kansas, cotton is planted in mid-May and must be finished planting by the first of June. More farmers want to grow cotton, but they are not sure if cotton can grow in their region. The Kansas State Extension Office is running tests to see if cotton can grow in Pawnee, Barton and Colby counties. They are using long-term simulation models and field research.
Because the price of a cotton stripper runs somewhere north of half a million dollars, many cotton growers hire out people to strip their cotton. Others, like Preisser, custom cut.
Although cotton offers several benefits, there are risks associated with the crop.
“It’s an expensive crop. It’s risky. It’s management intensive,” Friesen said. “You need to manage insects and weeds. But the potential for return is excellent.”
In addition, the crop needs to be fertilized.
Kansas cotton is affected by bollworm, cotton fleahopper and the tarnished plant bug. It is also susceptible to 2,4-D drift.
“It’s a lot more work,” Preisser said. “You have to spray it a lot.”
Unfortunately, last year’s wet spring stopped many farmers from planting their expanded cotton crop.
“We had more interest in cotton again this year, but the weather conditions didn’t allow them to get it to grow,” Nesler said. “We did have fewer acres planted because of the weather, but the cotton looks excellent.”
Even though the weather was a factor in how much cotton Southwest Family Farms in Kismet in Seward County grew, the family operation was able to plant most of their 1,000 acres they dedicated to cotton.
“Our crop is about average this year due to a cool, wet spring,” said Clint Reiss, a sixth-generation farmer. “This affected the germination of the seed.”
Steve Dillon has planted cotton on his field in Arlington for three years. He said because of the spring planting season, this year was challenging.
“I started growing cotton because of sugar cane aphid in the milo,” Dillon said. “There has been a learning curve.”
Of the 1,600 acres Dillon set aside to grow his dryland cotton on, he was only able to plant 480 acres. Because of the weather, he switched the other acreage to soybeans and milo.
Even with the cotton he did plant, he thinks his crop is not as good as last year’s.
“The stand isn’t as good as it should be,” Dillon said.
Similar to the others, Oden planted just 40% of what he intended. But, he is expecting a good yield.
“It (the crop) might be a little bit below average,” said David Lingle, the general manager of Next GINeration Cotton Gin in Pratt. “It’s a more compact plant. The yield is going to be down some.”
As of Nov. 10, the USDA and K-State Extension reported cotton conditions at 44% good to excellent and 56% poor to fair. One quarter of the cotton planted in Kansas was harvested as of Nov. 10. This is equal to the average and way ahead of last year.
The USDA reported on Nov. 8, nationally, all harvested cotton is forecast at 12.5 million acres. This is up 23% from last year. Friesen said because of the spring rains and consequently less cotton planted, Kansas’ acreage will be less than expected.
Although fewer crops were planted throughout the state, more farmers are planting.
The USDA ranks Kansas No. 14 in share of U.S. receipts for cotton in 2018. Texas, Georgia, California, Mississippi and Arkansas are the top five.
“It’s keeping the economy growing around here while the grains are down,” Preisser said. “It’s all about the bottom line.”