New Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension Cotton Agronomist Seth Byrd likens growing the crop to a 24-hour road race.
“You’re doing more of trying to predict how the environment is going to affect the crop and manage it to those environmental factors that could potentially cost yield, capitalize on them to increase yield or maintain your yield,” he said. “With cotton, maybe there’s a little more attempting to mitigate risk, and we may not try to hit a homerun, but like any crop, the goal is to be profitable.”
Byrd, who officially stepped into his role April 30, is ready to do his part to help Oklahoma cotton producers thrive.
“If a producer or anyone wants to know more about cotton, I’m always open to talk. I want to both answer questions and learn a lot, too,” he said. “I don’t try to tell anybody how to farm. Cotton growers are incredibly smart people. We just try to help them out on ‘what ifs’ and navigate some of the new options they have in cotton production now.”
In the short term, Byrd will work on establishing a program that evaluates different agronomic practices that ultimately will help producers lead more efficient operations.
Longer term, he envisions Oklahoma muscling its way to the front of the national cotton scene. Accomplishing that goal will entail promoting good production practices that generate both pounds per acre and a high quality product marketable on a global scale.
“You can get all the pounds per acre you want, but if our quality isn’t good and it’s not something we can market to spinning mills, then the profitability isn’t going to be there,” Byrd said. “We’ve certainly got the ability to do it, producers who are as good as anybody else in the country growing it and I think we’ve got the resources from Oklahoma State to put us there.”
Though Byrd has experience in growing everything from corn to soybeans to wheat to alfalfa to potatoes, cotton has been his most recent focus. He arrived at Oklahoma State from Texas A&M, where he was an assistant professor and Extension cotton specialist.
“To me, cotton is just a fun crop,” he said. “It’s a tropical tree. It thinks it’s going to survive and be here next year and the year after that. I don’t think it takes more management. It just takes a different kind of management to sort of reign it in and get it to do what we want it to do. Luckily, we have great university and industry breeders that have helped make that easier and more profitable.”
A self-proclaimed East Coast guy, Byrd is originally from North Carolina, but has lived all over – Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Wyoming, Montana, Florida, Georgia. He was drawn to Oklahoma, in part, because of the emergence of cotton as a popular option for a rapidly growing number of producers across the state.
In November 2017, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Crop Production Report ranked Oklahoma fourth in the nation in cotton production with an estimated 1.1 million bales.
Last year, there were 555,000 acres of cotton harvested in the state. That number is up from 290,000 in 2016 and 205,000 in 2015.
Oklahoma, along with Texas and Kansas, represent the only part of the country where cotton acreage is both growing and stabilizing, said Byrd, who views his new role as a chance to get in on the ground floor of a state that is very quickly emerging as a force in cotton production.
Finally, with 25 percent of his appointment dedicated to research, Byrd sees another unique opportunity to help cotton growers in Oklahoma.
Generally, the longer the growing season cotton enjoys, the better. However, Byrd said the newest acres being devoted to the crop are in some of the shortest season environments in the nation.
“That’s the new acre. It’s a short-season acre,” he said. “We have to have research that addresses producers’ needs and how we do things in a short-season environment. Our challenge is to develop a good guide or recommended practices for short-season cotton production.”
Story by Leilana McKindra