By: Kay Ledbetter

Ben McKnight’s acceptance of the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service statewide cotton specialist position is a return to familiar territory. McKnight started April 1 in the Texas A&M University Department of Soil and Crop Sciences at College Station.

Larry Redmon, Ph.D., associate department head and AgriLife Extension program leader for the department, said the Soil and Crop Sciences Extension Unit was excited to have McKnight fill the cotton specialist position in College Station.

Ben McKnight
Ben McKnight, Ph.D., is the new Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service statewide cotton specialist. (Texas A&M AgriLife photo)

“Ben is certainly no stranger to Texas having been born and raised in East Texas, or to Texas A&M as he obtained his master’s here in the Soil and Crop Sciences Department. We look forward to Ben developing a strong state-wide cotton program and presence.”
Experiences leading to cotton position

McKnight, Ph.D., worked for both Texas A&M AgriLife Research and AgriLife Extension while earning degrees at Texas A&M. He has spent the past few years working as a weed scientist with Louisiana State University, where he earned his doctorate.

During his postdoctoral research and as a research associate at LSU Agricultural Center, McKnight conducted rice field trials at research and grower locations. As a graduate research assistant, he worked in the Rice Weed Management Program conducting and managing field and glasshouse trials.

During his time with AgriLife Research, he assisted the Rice Weed Management research program with applying herbicide treatments, collecting and organizing data and harvesting research plots.

McKnight said his transition back to Texas and into cotton should be smooth because he is driven by solving problems as an agronomist.

“There are quite a few similarities between cotton and rice regarding the intensity of management,” he said. “Both require extensive management to produce a successful crop. I am looking forward to drawing from my past experiences working in rice management in this new position. Accepting this position is also a homecoming for me. As a Texas native, I am very familiar with the passion that our growers and industry have for cotton production.”
Arriving during a pandemic

McKnight said initially it will be a challenge to stay flexible during the COVID-19 pandemic to continue business as usual.

“However, our agency is employing innovative solutions in order to continue carrying out our mission during this unprecedented time,” he said. “We have some exceptional leadership and they’ve been in close contact throughout the COVID-19 pandemic with information as it evolves. I anticipate there will be an impact on upcoming grower meetings, field days and face-to-face meetings, but I am confident we will continue to provide the best outreach to our clientele.”

He said it appears producers are going about business as usual and crops are still being planted, and distributors, supply stores and other agriculture-related businesses are still open.

“One issue I expect producers to face this year is changes in commodity prices,” McKnight said. “The COVID-19 pandemic has had an impact on our cotton markets, but I think it still might be too early to tell what kind of overall impact it is going to have on commodity prices.”
Planning for future cotton research

From a field research standpoint, the plan is to continue evaluating many different research topics of interest to cotton production in the state, he said.

“One of the most important roles in this position is variety testing and getting the results of variety evaluations into the hands of our growers,” McKnight said. “Our program will continue to be very active in variety evaluation so our growers will have the information they need for on-farm decision making.”

He said some of the applied research efforts of his team will involve evaluation of fertility programs across the state, control of volunteer cotton plants and stalk destruction, just to highlight a few. Several of these research topics will be collaborative efforts with many other researchers, AgriLife Extension specialists and county agents.

“Some of my longer-term research interests include evaluating how various management decisions translate into profitability for our growers,” McKnight said. “Unfortunately, the highest yield doesn’t always translate into the highest level of profitability, and profitability is what keeps our growers in business.

“I am very passionate about helping growers develop management practices that increase their profitability. Our agency has many outstanding agricultural economists. I look forward to working closely with them to identify what kind of region-specific management decisions can enhance grower profitability.”
Outreach and education

McKnight said the COVID-19 pandemic will immediately impact his initial plans for outreach and education programming.

“I was looking forward to personally meeting our stakeholders across the state soon after starting in this position,” he said. “As of right now, I’m not sure how that will be impacted. Technology will be instrumental to keeping everyone in close communication and business running the best it can in these trying times.”

He plans to make initial contacts with stakeholders and AgriLife Extension and research professionals across the state in the coming weeks. However, he said, it will have to be either via telephone or online-based video conference platforms.

Long-term outreach and educational programming include continuing to work with others to develop high-quality resources, outreach and educational programs that improve Texas agriculture.

“I really enjoy interacting with people, so my hope is things will begin to normalize soon,” McKnight said. “I’m looking forward to getting out in the state to meet our stakeholders and my new colleagues. I’m a very hands-on learner, and I believe that most people in agriculture are too. So, I look forward to participating in field days and grower meetings, in addition to working with others to develop hands-on training activities for our county agents, producers and clientele in the future.”