John Friesen got into farming the hard way—starting from scratch with no family land or equipment to ease his way into a fulltime solo operation.
“I had to accumulate equipment and pay too much to lease land,” says Friesen, 34, from his farm near Seminole, Texas. He says the timing was good. “I started in 2006 so I had some good years, even though the first two or three were hard starting from scratch.”
Equipment costs, he says, are particularly tough on even established farmers. “We need a lot of equipment to farm the acreage we need to make a living,” he says.
He made some decent cotton yields from 2006 until 2011 and for part of that time cotton prices were also good. “The last three years were tough,” he says. “Good yields earlier helped us get through and insurance helped keep us in business.”
Most of his 2013 crop—the third drought year in a row—was significantly less than expected, a 1.5 bale per acre average on irrigated land where he typically makes from 2.5 to 3 bales per acre.
“It was the worst year I’ve had,” he says. He expected a lot of weed pressure so added yellow herbicide applications and was not happy with the results. He thinks planting shallow, in ground packed by cattle grazing, may have caused some damage. “We have to be aware of the soil condition,” he says.
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He admits that he’s had little experience with pre-plant herbicides. “I grew up relying on Roundup,” he says. “The older farmers around had used yellows before and then folks got away from them. I wish we had all stayed with them. We wouldn’t have the problems we do now.”
He is concerned about herbicide resistant weeds. He says the yellow herbicides did control weeds and will use them again next year, but he’ll be a bit more cautious with application. He plans to apply a pre-plant from four to six weeks ahead of planting and then come back with a “shot of yellow or Dual later, maybe through the pivot.”
He says that third straight year of limited rainfall also hurt prospects. “And irrigation water has been too salty.”
But Friesen hit a goal in 2013 that had eluded him, and many other cotton farmers, for years—five-bale cotton. He topped that on one 120-acre field under center pivot irrigation.
“Everything had to fall into place to make that yield,” he says. The variety, NG 1511 B2RF, played a big role, he says, as did the land and water.
“This was a new field and had been in Conservation Reserve for 10 or 20 years,” he says. “And a new well produced 700 gallons of water per minute. That’s as good as it gets in this area; it’s unusually good water.”
Friesen says that combination—a variety that was capable of producing high yields, new soil and ample water—provided the incentive to manage the field a bit more aggressively than usual. “I like the variety,” he says. “And I set a goal, or a dream, of five bales per acre.”
He applied more fertilizer than he did for fields with less potential—300 pounds of pre-plant nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium mix. “I can’t recall the exact blend,” he says. “And I added another 250 units of nitrogen through the pivot in season. That’s about 100 more than usual but I knew I had the water.”
Then everything went wrong.
“I had trouble establishing a cover crop, which we have to use in this part of the country to protect crops from sand. I planted hay grazer late to get cover and the hay grazer competed with cotton. Then I had to replant part of the field after a blowout.”
With the delays and setbacks, Friesen adjusted expectations to about four bales per acre. “I know it might sound foolish,” he says, “but I think we could have made more than five bales. About half the field made less than a five-bale average. With the right conditions, I think we can make six bales with this variety.
“With any less water and without this indeterminant variety, we wouldn’t make that yield.” He also notes that making five bales per acre with pivot irrigation is an accomplishment. Most yields that top four bales typically come from subsurface drip systems. “This is good for center pivot farmers,” he says. “We can do it, too.”
His pivots are set 60 inches apart and hang about 30 inches above the plant with low drift nozzles.
Other management factors also played roles in Friesen’s crop.
He made two plant growth regulator applications, 8 ounces of Pentia followed by another 16 ounces 10 days later. “I should have used a little more and I should have gotten that first 8 ounces out a little earlier.”
Weed pressure was light, a condition he attributes partly to working in new soil. “I used only Roundup, two applications. I also hoed out some weeds manually. It didn’t seem much like work as I watched the cotton grow while I chopped the weeds.”
He says land coming out of the Conservation Reserve often has little weed pressure. “We get mostly grasses. The few weeds I pulled out of the field, I probably hauled in. I guess I pulled 30 or 40 weeds out. I also had some scattered hay grazer plants I had to hit with Roundup.”
Friesen says the new ground was an important factor in hitting five bales per acre. “But I’ve always rotated. I never go back-to-back with cotton.” He rotates mostly with wheat but also plants some grain sorghum.
“I harvest wheat, leave the field fallow until the following spring and plant cotton into the stubble.”
He’s adding another enterprise to his mix next year—grapes. “I’ll start with four acres; that’s about 5,500 plants, which some folks say is like 5,500 children. It takes a lot of work.”
And it will be three years before he harvests anything significant. “It’s a big investment,” he says. But grapes offer an opportunity to make a crop with less land and limited water, a situation that’s becoming a more critical issue across West Texas. “We can take a small acreage of grapes and concentrate water on them and still have a good farm,” Friesen says.
Farmers need options. “Our dryland cotton this year made nothing. We have to get smarter and work harder.”
Friesen says starting from scratch was a tough beginning but jokes that he didn’t know enough to think it wouldn’t work. “Looking back, I wouldn’t want to do anything else,” he says.
His father had worked on a farm when Friesen was growing up. “Until I left, I didn’t realize how much I missed the farm,” he says.
Making five bales per acre on a 120-acre patch of cotton, even in an off year across the board, should keep him focused for a few more years, and he’s already thinking about six bales.