Brent Hendon sits between his grandfather, Gene, and his father, Ronnie, all on mismatched chairs lined up in front of a workbench along one side of a spacious, squeaky clean equipment shed in the middle of Welch, Texas. They talk cotton.
To be clear, from the middle of Welch, Texas, you can see all four boundaries of this Southern Plains community situated about halfway between Lamesa and Brownfield. Considering Brent’s acreage and his father’s, they “farm every side of Welch.”
And someone from the Hendon family has been growing cotton here since the late 1920s. “My great grandfather bought land here in 1916,” Brent says, “but he had to save money until he could afford to start a farm, sometime in the late ‘20s.”
Brent, 38, made his 20th crop in 2016 — 100 years after the original land acquisition. In early October, the crop looked “pretty good,” he says, “considering the amount of rain we had. Rain just stopped in August, but the irrigated fields were promising. Dryland was expected to make a half to three quarters of a bale. Drought from June 15 through the end of August limited dryland yield prospects.
Hendon irrigates 75 percent of his 4,000 acres of cotton with center pivots with low elevation spray application (LESA). He uses a FieldNet control system to monitor and manage the pivots from his smart phone. He also employs soil conservation practices, rotation and resistant weed management.
His commitment to these efficient cotton production practices, and a sound conservation program, earned him the 2017 Farm Press/Cotton Foundation High Cotton Award for the Southwest region.
He will receive the award at an honors breakfast at the Mid-South Farm and Gin Show at Memphis March 4
‘ALWAYS BEEN COTTON’
Hendon talks about his commitment to cotton. “It’s always been cotton. We have some peanuts (120 acres of conventional and 30 acres of organic), wheat, and triticale, but we have bought and paid for everything with cotton. We stay with it in good times and bad.”
That’s the way he feels about farming, too. “I never considered doing anything else. I didn’t want to go to college.” He started farming on his own as soon as he got out of high school and has been at it ever since.
Things have changed during that stretch. “Over the years, I’ve found myself spending a lot less time on the tractor,” he says. Improved equipment efficiency eliminated some tractor hours. “For the last two or three years, I’ve gone from 8-row to 16-row equipment, so I do a lot more with less. With one 16-row planter I can do more in a day than I can with two 8-row planters — using less diesel and less labor. But that 16-row planter costs more than twice as much as two 8-row units.”
He and his father share equipment and labor. “I work 4,500 acres with two hired hands,” he says. “With dad’s acreage, we farm about 8,000 acres. We work together, but we have separate farm operations. Working together makes us both more efficient.”
The FieldNet program also aids efficient production and water management. “I have FieldNet on all my pivots, and can check them from my phone at any time. I turn systems on or off, slow down, or speed up, but I still check every pivot visually at least once a day. Dad has half of his pivots hooked up with FieldNet, and will upgrade the rest next year.”
WATER MANAGEMENT A PRIORITY
That kind of attention is warranted, since water management is a priority. He has some fields with “good water in spots, and not so good. Water level has been declining over the past 15 years. I’m now watering half circles.”
He plants the entire circle in cotton, but waters only half to concentrate moisture and improve yield potential in dry years. “Half circles and FieldNet help us set pivots to run efficiently.” Half circles are more difficult to manage with 16-row equipment, he says. “We have adjusted irrigated acreage, and plant just what we can water adequately. Fiber quality is also better; with adequate moisture, the plant is less stressed. We see less low micronaire.”
Soil conservation, too, plays an integral role in his production plan. “At least half my acreage is in minimum till,” he says. He plants four rows of wheat in the bottom of the cotton rows. “It’s often still hard to establish the wheat for cover,” he says. “And when the cotton gets hailed out, we go back to milo and keep the stubble to hold the soil. We used to plant milo regularly, but the price got so low we can’t make money with it.”
He says peanuts offer a good rotation option, along with wheat, which they terminate to put some organic matter back into the soil. “We have a lot of sandy soils, and we have broken some land with a caterpillar to pull clay up. The sand does drain well, though. We can get a 2 inch rain and get back in the field quickly.”
He says breaking land is also a useful tool in weed control. “We may go three or four years without breaking land,” Brent says. “But sometimes we need to turn it over. If we find a bad spot of weeds we will break it. We also use hoe hands,” especially in organic peanuts.
Weed management has become a core objective, he says. “I despise weeds.” Identifying weedy spots establishes management targets. “Running my own stripper is an advantage,” he says. “I see where the weeds are, and I often stop and pull them as I harvest.”
He also has to get off the stripper to yank weeds out of the machinery. “I get tired of climbing up and down that ladder,” he says. The best weed management option “is to keep them from coming up. We get a lot of benefit from a yellow herbicide pre-plant.”
He adds Staple or Dual with the first shot of Roundup, and also cultivates. “We never got away from plowing. Even before we had resistant weeds, we plowed to get rid of volunteer cotton.”
Variety selection also affects efficiency, Hendon says. Nematode populations, for instance, create production challenges, and variety resistance offers one of the best management options. “We plant mostly Stoneville 4946 (a root knot nematode-tolerant variety). With the loss of Temik and Vydate, nematode-susceptible varieties have been more vulnerable the last few years, so we had to find something else. Nematode-tolerant varieties and rotation are good options.”
He’s concerned that as the new Dicamba and 2,4-D-tolerant cotton varieties come onto the market growers may be left without nematode-tolerant options. None of the new herbicide-resistant options are nematode tolerant yet. “We may have to change from some varieties we like.”
The other option is to forego the new technology until nematode-resistant options are available. Seed company representatives expect those varieties to be available in the new herbicide-tolerant packages within two years.
As Hendon prepared to harvest what promised to be a pretty good crop back in October, he, like cotton farmers across the belt, hoped to see some upward movement in the markets. “I do the marketing myself,” he says, “although I have used a pool in the past. I contracted some this summer when we got a little spike. I was able to book some at 72.5 cents back in July.
“I have to pay attention and watch the market, since upswings often come in spurts. I like to keep my options open, so if it comes back up, I want to be ready.” He says 80 cents to 85 cents would be a good target, but “if it gets to 72 cents, I’ll have to sell a little.”
He says he learned a lesson about marketing when he first started farming. “I sold in February for less than I could have gotten in December — so now when I see a price I can live with, I sell some.” Following a marketing routine, including watching and reacting to weather and supply factors, makes sense, he says. “One cent here or there goes a long way.
“We still have to make the pounds,” Hendon says, noting that 2015 was a good year, with a 1,600 pound average. “It was the best cotton I’ve ever made. That’s 3 bales an acre, and some made almost 4 bales. I’ve never quite made 4 bale cotton, but I’ve been close. I don’t think I saw a 4 bale spot (in 2016). It was consistently good, but we probably had too much heat in the summer, too many days above 100 degrees. We had extremes — hot and dry, and floods and cool.”
With good years and bad years, a cotton farmer can only do so much, he says. “It kinda evens out. But God takes care of us every year. I have to do my job, and I am not going to miss a crop because I didn’t take care of it. I do all I know to do, and after that, it’s just the way it is. A little hard work goes a long way.”
Hendon’s wife, Bralie, also has agricultural credentials, with a Ph.D. in crop and soil sciences. She is currently a science teacher. Hendon thinks his son, Graham, 6, will want to follow in his footsteps and farm, if his early interest is any indication. Graham accompanies him to the field every chance he gets. “It’s in his blood, I guess,” his father says.
If Graham does follow in farming, he will be the fifth generation of Hendons to surround the small town of Welch, Texas, with their favorite crop, and one day could join his dad, grandfather, and great-grandfather in that equipment shed — talking about cotton.