Kansas is the newest state to grow cotton. Corn and wheat grower, Tom Lahey, visited cotton fields in Hereford, Texas, and decided to give cotton a try in Moscow, Kansas. Tom planted his first cotton in 2000, and now farms a mix of dryland cotton, and pivot irrigated corn, cotton and wheat on 15,000 acres with his son. With only 17 inches of rainfall, in a good year, and lots of acres to manage, their time and water are the critical limits for success.
Tom has developed an innovative water “sharing” system that allows corn and cotton to succeed even in dry years. Corn’s heavy water use occurs early in the summer, while cotton’s slow vegetative growth delays its water use until after corn’s water needs are met. Where several pivots are fed from a common water source, the Lahey’s utilize this complementary water requirement by planting corn and cotton on connected pivots and gradually switching their water from corn to cotton during the growing season. Jim Bordovsky, with Texas A&M in Lubbock, has just completed a 4 year study showing that cotton is much more responsive to water during the boll retention and maturation periods. If seasonal water is limited it is best to apply it later in the season as each acre inch of water returns approximately 100 lbs of fiber. While an acre-inch of water applied prebloom only returns 10 lbs of fiber.
Tom’s water “sharing” system goes even further in a dry year. He knows that corn yields can plummet under severe drought, while cotton is much more adaptable to limited moisture, especially prior to bloom. Since Kansas has a fixed annual water allotment, but the annual rainfall is highly variable, he can grow a healthy corn crop in low rainfall years (using the irrigation water) and still grow some cotton on rainwater.
Although water is the motivation to mix cotton with corn, Tom considers cotton and grain an excellent rotation crop for many other reasons: