Dahlen Hancock, a cotton and grain farmer from New Home, Texas, and First Vice President of Cotton Council International, addressed the COTTON USA Brand & Retailer Leadership Summit in Berlin, Germay, in early March. Hancock described the steps most American cotton farmers take to ensure that their land remains productive and that they protect the natural resources necessary for crop production and for healthy life. His topic was “Responsible cotton Production.” Hancock has graciously offered his presentation to Southwest Farm Press and we believe his comments and images offer instruction and affirmation of the farmers’ commitment to stewardship. Observers note that the presentation resulted in a standing ovation. Well deserved, we believe.
Also see: Farm sustainability a story worth telling
1. Cotton USA
Responsible Cotton Production
2. U.S. Cotton Production
This slide illustrates where cotton is grown in the United States. Production at a county level is indicated on the legend with darker colors indicating counties with larger production. You can see four highly concentrated areas in red on this map.
3. Family farm
My family farms outside of Lubbock, Texas. Lack of rainfall and a short growing season are our most yield limiting factors. Despite these issues, Lubbock is the center of one of these concentrated production regions and is the center of the largest contiguous cotton growing region in the world. Cotton is the basis for our local economies and it is critical that we are dedicated to environmental and social stewardship.
4. Cotton Harvest
This is my immediate family. My grandfather would be amazed by the harvester that my wife, sons, and I are posing with in this slide. My grandfather came to this region in 1936 and purchased 200 acres. He was the first person to document ownership and to farm that land. My father built upon what his dad had built and retired from farming in 2004. We have continued to expand and my dad still helps with our farm. My oldest son farms on his own and my younger son, my wife and I farm a total of 6,500 acres. This is much larger than the 1,300 my grandfather was farming when he passed, but it represents the changes in production agriculture and the scale producers must obtain to remain profitable with a modest income.
5. Family garden
We live on the farm. We drink the water from beneath the soil. We grow a garden that helps put food on our table.
6. Kids at play
Kids play in the fields. This was my grandfather’s home and I fully expect my grandchildren and their children to call this home.
So what are we doing to help ensure the sustainability of our farming operation?
7. Improved conservation
Number 1, we must be good stewards of water and soil. I like to rotate corn and grain sorghum with cotton. Both are high residue crops that have many benefits in a cotton rotation. The residue helps reduce soil erosion, adds organic matter to the soil, and improves soil structure. This helps increase the amount of water that can be stored in the soil profile and not run off the field surface taking nutrients and soil along with it. We have made tremendous gains in reducing soil erosion. Improvements in conservation tillage equipment and tillage practices differ great greatly from what my dad and grandfather practiced. We work closely with USDA-NRCS to ensure we are making the best decisions with regard to soil and water management.
8. Fertility program
We collect soil samples and base our fertilizer application rates on the results. Our fertility program is built around the use of composted gin waste and cattle manure. Our close proximity to the facility that blends and processes this material makes this a great choice for us. This product meets our phosphorous and potassium needs. We supplement this with additional nitrogen striving to meet the 4Rs (right source, right rate, right time, and right place) in an effort to achieve greater fertility efficiency.
Our 100-year average yearly rainfall is just below 19 inches. During the last four years we have experienced wide swings in rainfall. 2010 was one of our wettest years, while 2011 was one of the driest. We are still trying to recover from 2011. Almost 40 percent of the land we farm is dryland or rain-fed. Cotton is the most profitable and often the only crop that will yield in our environment without irrigation. Irrigation is a risk management tool that allows me to reduce yield variability from year to year and to introduce other crops into the rotation.
Our rain-fed cotton will produce anywhere from 0 to 1,000 pounds of lint per acre. We generally produce 375 pounds of lint per acre on our dryland or rain-fed cotton. Our irrigated yield goal is 1,000 to 1,250 pounds of lint per acre. When Mother Nature cooperates, our irrigated yields can be as high as 1,500 to 2,000 pounds of lint per acre. We try to start the season with 80 percent to 100 percent plant available moisture and use moisture probes to schedule irrigation. As you can see on this slide, water is limited. Timing is critical to the success of this program. Improvements in our timing and rate of irrigation water applied to our crop has helped us to produce much more lint while using only a fraction of the water used when we first started irrigating crops in our region.
Our integrated pest management program places a great deal of importance on host plant resistance for disease and nematode protection. Selecting the varieties with the best pest management packages for our particular situation, together with the fiber yield and quality parameters the industry demands, is one of our most important and difficult decisions of the year. A poor decision in variety selection stays with you the entire season. We monitor insect pests and manage beneficial insects to reduce the need for chemical control. Weed resistance management utilizes a number of cultural practices used in conjunction with chemical control tactics to help us manage our weed seed bank and reduce the impact of weed competition on yield and quality.
11. Research and Extension
You might ask how we are producing more with less. USDA and University research, coupled with Land Grant University Cooperative Extension Service, which by the way are funded in part with our industry’s producer checkoff program, plays a tremendous role in identifying research priorities and transferring research findings to the producer. Extension provides training, educational materials, such as these shown on the slide, and field demonstrations. These are all things that I use to help improve variety selection and pest management decisions and to preserve the yield and quality of cotton, which in turn helps make me profitable. It would be foolish of me to stand here and pretend that I am the perfect farmer. While my practices do not differ greatly from my neighbors, every person and field is different. We must manage to optimize strengths and minimize weakness of our management styles and the productivity of the land. I like to think that I make the best decisions possible and learn from mistakes.
Our regulatory environment is such that we must comply with state and federal rules or go out of business. While this system is sometimes burdensome, it allows me to feel safe about purchasing food in our stores regardless of where it was produced, inside or outside of the U.S. This system helps protect me, my family and workers while ensuring our products are safe for consumers. Our system also helps protect our environment.
The increased number of wildlife, such as mule deer and Canadian geese, in our area are signs that we are doing much better in improving the habitat and biodiversity of our region. We attend training sessions provided by state and federal agencies. We train and are then tested for licenses required in order to apply restricted use pesticides. We attend regular training sessions to collect required continuing education units to maintain our accreditation for those licenses. We are required to keep detailed records on pesticide applications and storage. We are required to provide a great deal of documentation and training for our workers to ensure their safety as well as the safety of all others.
14. Farming is a business
Farming is a business. Businesses continually strive to improve efficiency, because those that don’t lose ground to the competition who do. When you step back and look at the big picture of cotton farming in the U.S., improving our level of efficiency has reduced our environmental footprint, helping to make us more sustainable both economically and environmentally.
15. Fourth generation
I’m a fourth generation farmer. My sons are also farming.
16. Excellent employees
We have multiple generations of families that work for us. We think of our workers as family. I’m going to do all I can to make sure this farm and my family are in better shape when I’m gone than when I started farming. This is what farming and family is all about.
17. The reason for stewardship
When I talk about family, I have to share a picture of my granddaughter, Cora Elin Hancock, the most important reason to be the safest and most responsible steward I can be. I am blessed to farm and to serve as the caretaker of this patch of earth, not only for my grandchildren but future generations as well.