Matt, John and Josh Schoepf, the fifth generation to work the family cotton and grain farm near Lorenzo, Texas, never really wanted to do anything else. Their fathers were the same.
Bryan, Matt’s father, started farming on his own in 1978. John and Josh’s Dad, Mark, made his first crop in 1982. “All I ever wanted to do was farm,” Bryan said. Mark concurs.
Marvin, the patriarch of the operation at 75, is making his 52nd crop this year.
“We have seven people working to make a living from the farm,” Marvin said on a cold, blustery February day with all seven, plus hired hand Cory Adams, Plains Cotton Growers Director of Communications and Public Affairs Mary Jane Buerkle, and one Farm Press editor huddled up in a barn around a heater that alternately sent us inching closer to warm up and backing away to escape the heat. Wind gusts rattled the roof of the metal building, reminding all that wanting to farm and being successful at it are not always companions.
The operation began, in fact, because of hardship elsewhere. “My grandfather came here in 1927 after the boll weevil ran him out of Bell County,” Marvin said. “I started farming on my own in 1962.”
He’s seen significant changes in that time—from working about 240 acres to being part of an operation that includes more than 6,000 acres. He’s witnessed the beginning of chemical weed control and the necessity of going back to old school methods as resistant-weed problems emerged. He’s watched technology change from cotton wagons to on-board module cotton strippers, global positioning system technology and computerized records.
The experience of grandfather and fathers plus the technological expertise of the sons bridges three generations and a half-century to create a system that allows each to contribute special skills to the operation. “Everyone brings something different to the table,” Mark says.
“The boys take to the technology,” Marvin adds. He and Josh do “95 percent of the book work.” Mark and John prefer to be on the tractors.
“Matt is Mr. fix-it,” Mark says.
For the latest on southwest agriculture, please check out Southwest Farm Press Daily and receive the latest news right to your inbox.
John says at planting time he takes care of the GPS settings in the cab. “But Dad sets the planters from the ground. He knows from experience what needs to be done.”
They don’t always agree. “We butt heads sometimes,” John said, “but 95 percent of the time, if there is a question, I’m going to do what granddad suggests.”
He also acknowledged that with three young men—Matt is 32, John is 26 and Josh is 23—that head butting is par for the course. “But with 6,000 acres we have plenty of room to stay out of each other’s way.”
They have separate operations, but all work together.
Old and new challenges
They all face challenges—old ones, such as drought and hail storms that have bedeviled farmers for as long as humans have planted seed, and new ones that emerge as crops, equipment and production practices change.
Currently, they are concerned about low cotton prices and the cost to produce the crop. “We’re going to grow cotton,” Mark says. “The situation is not pretty now, but we will plant cotton and hope for the best.”
That means investing in necessary inputs, he adds. “We may not plant dryland cotton. We rotate with milo anyway so we don’t have as much trouble with weeds. We may plant some milo on half-pivot circles and water some milo. We’ve been doing that anyway, on some of our weaker pivots.
“We can’t plant beans and we can’t just switch over to corn. We have a lot invested in cotton equipment.”
They won’t cut back on fertility, either, even though fertilizer prices have not followed the downward slide of fuel. “We made a good cotton crop last year, so we took too much out of the soil not to fertilize it this year,” Mark says.
They think resistant weeds will be troublesome in 2015. “We saw a lot of resistant pigweeds last year, so we expect to see even more in 2015,” he says.
John says resistant-weed infestation varies from field to field. “We have some bad pigweed problems in some fields. Milo helps; we use different herbicides.”
They are using residual products on cotton, including yellow, pre-plant incorporated materials and Direx behind the planter, also Staple and Dual. “It just depends on the field,” Mark says.
Resistance is a new issue. “We started seeing resistant pigweed in 2011. We thought it was drought-related, that the weeds were just tough, and we weren’t controlling them. In 2012 and 2013, we realized we had resistance. In 2014, resistance was worse and we expect a major flare in 2015.”
Residual herbicides will be the backbone of their weed resistance management strategy. They will go back to incorporating yellows and may “back off minimum till and plow more. We’re doing more winter plowing and are putting fertilizer in now. We want to make the fewest number of trips across the field as we can, but if we get weed problems we may need to cultivate.”
They plan on using less Roundup in 2015 and more residual products.
Water is becoming an increasingly important issue. “The drought of 2011, 2012, and 2013 took a toll on our aquifer, especially where we had better water. The areas with weaker water seem to have held up.”
The 2011 drought showed that they can’t make a crop on irrigation alone. “If we get a little rain, as we did in 2014, we can make it work.”
They irrigate mostly with pivots but have 600 acres in subsurface drip. “Those did well in 2014,” Mark says. “The best field made 1,950 pounds per acre, not quite four bales, but an excellent yield.”
“We have to have the right place for drip irrigation,” John says.
They may add more drip at some point. “We don’t have acres available to install it now. We will not pull down a pivot to install drip,” Mark says.
Even with low prices, investing in the crop remains a priority, and they’ve seen a lot of swings in the markets. “We have to meet our yield goals,” John says. “And to do that, we have to invest in the crop. We have to replace fertilizer.” The different approach to weed management also may cost a bit more but is essential to make the crop.
“The days of making cheap cotton are over,” Mark says. “The one thing we have going for us now is moisture. We’re wet; our soil moisture is good.”
They will continue to plant improved varieties, Roundup Ready and Bt cotton, and have ordered some of the new XtendFlex varieties, although the herbicide package will not be available this year. “We will at least have an opportunity to see how the varieties perform,” Mark says.
They admit to being “a little scared” of the new dicamba and 2, 4-D technology because of volatility issues. “But it looks like a good tool,” Mark says.
They say variety development has made a huge difference in cotton yields over the past decade. “We tend to stay with what’s proven on our farm,” Mark says, “and we don’t change based just on company variety trials. We want to see what something will do on our farm. We might try something on a limited basis for a year or two to see what it will do. We grow a lot of different varieties.”
Adopting GPS has improved efficiency. “We have GPS on every piece of equipment,” Mark says. “We use it mostly for planting and spraying and are not using it yet for precision application. But we are collecting data from our yield monitor.”
As they build data from successive crops, they will “develop the capability to look at yield maps and see the weak spots. We can identify problems,” Mark says.
Even without a lot of data, the system offers benefits. “We have no overlapping,” Marvin says. That saves on spray and seed costs.
“GPS is an advantage with every trip across the field,” Josh says.
They also like the John Deere CS690 cotton stripper they used to harvest most of the 2014 crop. “We made 10,600 bales and put around 9,000 through the CS690,” Mark says. “It was 8,875, to be exact,” Marvin added.
“The boys liked it,” Mark says. “It freed up a lot of labor to combine grain sorghum. It also replaced two, 8-row cotton trippers, two module builders, and two boll buggies.”
He says if the crop had not been late they would have run everything through the on-board module stripper. “We needed a little custom harvest work late in the season.”
Harvest cost is a little higher, $13.50 per bale compared to $11.50 per bale with the 7460 stripper. “But it saves labor,” Marvin says. “This is the way we will harvest cotton from now on.”
“It’s easier to harvest,” John says.
“We can run all night,” Josh adds.
“We had a few issues with the stripper but we worked through it,” says Mark.
A half-century of experience
When Marvin started farming more than 50 years ago, he never imagined he would see a machine that would build round bales of cotton on the go or that technology would keep tractors and sprayers on line across fields. “I had no idea I would see this kind of technology. A lot has changed. In 1962, we didn’t use herbicides but relied on cultivation. I farmed 240 acres, and that was all I could do.”
Challenges continue for the fifth generation to farm these acres.
“We saw some hard times in 2011,” John recalls. “Most of the cotton made a quarter of a bale. We made a half-bale on one farm.” He said head-butting was a bit more common in 2011.
They’ve been through some ups and down in the market as well. Marvin recalls selling cotton for 30 cents back in the 1970s. Josh and John sold cotton in 2011 for $1.35. It’s far below that as they prepare to put in the 2015 crop.
“We put most of our cotton in a pool,” Marvin says. “It usually averages out.”
Josh recalls that the price of cotton dropped by $100 per bale from planting time until harvest last year. Potential revenue dropped by more than $1 million. “But the production cost remained the same. It hurt when I figured out how much we lost.”
John says they need to make at least two bales per acre to break even on cotton. “That’s why we’re not backing off on fertility.”
They made better than three bales per acre last year on irrigated cotton, just over a bale on dryland.
Best they can do now is look to 2015 and hope for better prices and another good year. They’ve already signed up for the new farm program, electing the Price Loss Coverage, PLC, for their grain.
They say the add-on insurance options available for cotton are not promising. “I don’t think STAX will work for us,” Mark says, “since (payment) will be calculated on county-wide losses.”
In 2011, STAX probably would have been useful, but after consulting with their insurance agent, they determined that increasing their underlying policy would be more beneficial. “We may increase coverage by 5 percent.” With the current guarantees they can buy more insurance at a lower price than they paid last year.
More rain needed
They also hope for timely rains to augment good moisture from winter precipitation.
“We have good soil moisture,” Mark says. “The ground is working up well.”
He knows farming comes with a lot of ups and downs, hits and misses. “But it’s a good life. There are things about farming I don’t like. When it’s July and 104 degrees, and we have to be outside, it’s not fun. But we have a lot of advantages. We’ve been through drought; we’ve been hailed out, but we have made some good crops.”
The tradition may continue for generations to come.
Mark and Bryan say they gave their sons, an opportunity. “We didn’t push them into farming,” Bryan says. Their sons may follow that same logic.
Matt is married and has children but is uncertain if he would like for them to farm.
John says he would like his children to have “the opportunity” to farm if they want to.
“Neither John nor I are married,” Josh says. “As for my (future) kids, I would hope they grow up knowing and appreciating where they come from. But whether they decide to farm or not, I think that should be their choice.”