Shawn Holladay pulls to the far right of the county (dirt) road that divides two Dawson County, Texas, cotton fields that are shining white in a clear, late October afternoon. He motions for us to stop, rolls down his window, and suggests we pull up next to the oil well pump jack and park.
“How’s the cotton?” I ask, as Mary Jane Buerkle, Plains Cotton Growers director of communications and public affairs, and I step out of her truck, climb into Shawn’s vehicle, and settle in for the short drive across the road and down rows of brown, bare cotton stalks, stripped by Shawn’s John Deere CS690 cotton stripper/baler, which continues to move across the field, slowing slightly to drop a 94-inch diameter, yellow plastic-wrapped cotton bale that is quickly picked up by a tractor-loader and plopped down next to several others near the field edge.
“It’s doing all right,” Shawn says, in answer to my earlier question about crop prospects. “It’s about what I expect — but not what I want.” He says this field, non-irrigated, is making about a bale and a quarter.
“You wanna ride?” he asks. I do.
He raises his operator on the radio, instructs him to stop, and we swap places in the harvester. I settle in, riding shotgun as Shawn shifts the controls, lowers the 8-row header, and starts down the rows as the machine hums to life. Cotton bolls move into the machinery that separates lint from burrs, then packs the cotton into large round bales.
For the latest on southwest agriculture, please check out Southwest Farm Press Daily and receive the latest news right to your inbox.
“How’s the stripper working?” I ask.
“It’s doing really well,” he replies. “But, it comes with a pretty long learning curve. The headers, the saws, and most everything else in the stripper are the same, but the baler mechanism is so different.”
Efficiency is improved over the old stripper/boll buggy/module builder system, he says. “In cotton like this (1.2 bales per acre, according to the onboard monitor as we move through the field), I can’t do what I could with two 8-row strippers. But when I get into three-bale cotton, I’ll do as much as two strippers will do. I also got rid of two boll buggies and the module builder, so in my mind, the efficiency works out.”
We’re going about 7.5 mph through the dryland fields. “We have to run 7.5 mph to 8 mph to be more efficient than a conventional stripper,” Shawn says. “When we’re pulling 3 bales, we run about 4 mph — and that’s quite a bit faster than we used to go.”
TRYING TO BEAT EL NIÑO
In late October, Shawn and other High Plains farmers were scurrying around, trying to harvest cotton before the rainfall they had needed in summer moved in to threaten the crop at harvest time. The last Wednesday of October, he was about one-third through harvest and was trying to get as much harvested as possible to get ahead of rain forecast for Thursday and Friday.
The El Niño threat, which had been predicted since back in the spring to bring rain during the fall and winter, encouraged cotton farmers to get ready for harvest as soon as possible.
“We hired a lot of help because of the forecast,” Shawn says. “We defoliated quickly.” At times, he had four machines harvesting the crop. He has only the one CS690, but several others have been available during harvest.
Now, as the harvester moves through the cotton field, he’s actually a bit ahead of normal. “We got started a month early,” he says. “We stripped for the month of October, and we usually don’t get started until November.” The dry summer finished the crop early.
Lint grades, in spite of the late start and the summer drought, have been good, he says. “We’ve been pretty fortunate. A lot of the Plains cotton has come in with leaf and bark issues. So far, we’ve not had any of that.”
This year’s cotton crop has been a challenging one, he says: too much rain, drought, expensive weed control efforts, and now the threat of a wet fall that could delay harvest and affect yield and quality. It’s a cotton farmer’s lot, Shawn says.
But those challenges also make him wonder at what the U.S. Congress was thinking when it agreed to a budget proposal that would have reopened the farm bill and enacted deep cuts in crop insurance subsidies, all in order to save a small amount in the overall U.S. budget.
An 11th hour deal will mean the cuts are restored when an omnibus spending bill is passed later this year, but Shawn, who is also President of Plains Cotton Growers, was taken aback at how little legislators understand about crop insurance — how important it is to farmers, especially cotton farmers, who are no longer covered under the farm bill.
“It’s frustrating for farmers to know they were thrown under the bus in the dark of the night, with cuts so onerous it could put many out of business,” he says. “The proposal showed a total lack of understanding of what crop insurance does, how it works, and how important it is. For cotton, crop insurance is all we have.”
A farm safety net has become even more important over the past decade, Shawn says. Production costs have risen steeply. “When oil went up, everything else went up, too.”
Farm commodity markets enjoyed a few years of record prices as well, but recent bumper crops and record high world stocks reversed that trend quickly. And the input costs that went up with oil are still up, he says.
“Anytime a producer has to make an above average crop in order to make a below average return, it’s difficult,” Shawn says.
He and others are hoping the Secretary of Agriculture will determine that cottonseed qualifies as a covered commodity under the farm bill, as “other oilseeds,” similar to sunflower. “If we get that done, things will improve,” he says.
That change could save some farms. “A lot of farmers are now upside-down due to cash flow difficulties. They lost money last year and many won’t do well this year. We need more returns for what we’re growing, and it will be a couple of years before things improve.”
Having cottonseed as a covered crop would help farmers with their lenders and would be especially good for younger farmers, he says. “Younger growers, 25 to 30 years old, could benefit. Otherwise, some of them might not be here next year.” Having a covered commodity as collateral would help keep some of them in business, he says. “We are working on the project daily.”
He thinks the Secretary of Agriculture can declare cottonseed a covered commodity, without having to open up the farm bill. “We have support to do it, and the whole cotton industry wants it. There is a need for it.”
The National Cotton Council, as well as Plains Cotton Growers, supports the effort, Shawn says. “If it doesn’t happen, it won’t be because of something we didn’t get done.”
We make several more laps around the dryland field, as the harvester sucks up more cotton and periodically drops another big module. We discuss everything from politics, to resistant weeds, to the new machine, which, in addition to being an efficient harvest implement, is also a comfortable ride.
The machine was, he says, somewhat pricey. “There is nothing like driving a $650,000 stripper through cotton on which you’re losing 10 cents a pound,” he says wryly.
Still, he says, the numbers work out in his favor.