Editor's note: West Texas cotton farmers sometimes get branded as low-input producers. The thought process goes that trying to grow cotton in an area as unpredictable as the Texas Plains or in rain-dependent Central Texas, comes with so many risks that putting a lot of money into the crop makes little sense considering all the things that can go wrong with it.
That production philosophy may make sense to some and more than a few growers have eked out a living growing dryland cotton with minimum inputs. But a growing number of Central and West Texas farmers are increasing management intensity, in both dryland and, especially, in irrigated fields to enhance yield potential and to produce the highest quality fiber possible. In articles over the past five issues, we've featured farm operations that have developed intense management programs that focus on high yields and high quality.
Following is the sixth and final article in the series. This one summarizes the key production practices employed by each of the farm operations featured in the previous five articles.
Cotton farmers who consistently hit aggressive yield goals follow proven production systems but include enough flexibility to adopt new technology and to adjust to economic and environmental changes.
Farmers featured in this series share common production techniques but also customize practices to fit specific field or management situations. Common denominators among the five farm operations include variety selection; a sound fertility program; conscientious weed, insect and disease management; efficient moisture management; and timely harvest preparation.
Some plant only cotton. Others say rotation is a key to maintaining yields. Labor management is a key to some. Tillage practices range from deep breaking land to seeding minimum-till into a terminated cover crop.
But variety selection tops the list for each farm and all farmers interviewed for these articles insist that yield increases the past few years are possible because of better varieties.
Rickey Bearden, Plains, Texas, says the first key to hitting yield goals is to select the best variety for a specific field. Like a number of other farmers featured in this series, Bearden participates in variety trials with The Texas Cooperative Extension Service each year.
“I think we had 18 different varieties this year,” Bearden says. Watching varieties from year to year on his own farm gives him a unique perspective on how well new releases will perform under his conditions.
Mark Appling, who farms with his brother David and father Joe near Crosbyton, Texas, agrees with the importance of variety selection.
“Better varieties have made a difference,” Mark says. “We used to get just a bale per acre on irrigated cotton; now we get two (or more).”
He says variety selection may be the easiest choice to make in a production program. “We get a lot of information from (Texas A&M cotton specialist) Randy Boman's large scale variety trials. At the end of his charts he always puts a dollar sign, indicating the difference in returns from one variety to another. Pounds may be the bragging rights of a variety but these test results show us how to make more money.”
Ellis County, Texas, cotton and grain farmer Clifford Williams also sees variety selection as a key to high yields. He grows dryland cotton and says varieties are better than just a few years back. “Yield and quality are better.”
He sees a lot of varieties every year in test plots he's planted for some 40 years. Seeing what new varieties will do on his fields, under his management, gives him a heads up on what to plant in the future.
Ed Reynolds, Idalou, Texas, uses only drip irrigation and says some varieties adapt better to drip than others. “I plant mostly FiberMax 960 B2R and some 989 B2R. I also have some DPL 2280 that looks good. We have quite a few varieties that will do well with drip irrigation. I usually select one.”
He likes picker-type cotton for drip acreage. “They yield better and quality is good. But some stripper types are getting close.”
Tammy Glen, who farms with her brothers and father near Levelland, Texas, says improved varieties make their yield goals easier to reach.
“We're making more cotton than ever before, but we couldn't hit those marks without picker varieties,” she says. “We've planted picker cotton for about four years.”
It proved a good move.
“Our yields are up and quality is better,” she says. “Now, we have every irrigated acre in picker-type cotton.”
Fertility deserves a place toward the top of the essential practices list for each of the farm operations. Williams may be concerned about high fertilizer prices but can't make yield goals by wholesale rate cuts. “I don't want too much fertilizer,” he says. “I didn't over-fertilize the 2005 crop.”
He says corn yields were off 10 to 15 bushels per acre so cotton will take some of the residual.
“We have to take care of our land and maintaining fertility is part of that process,” Bearden says. “When we make a crop we mine some of the nutrients and we have to replace what we take out. But we don't want to overdo it and waste fertilizer.”
Reynolds uses his drip irrigation system to “trickle nutrients out through the system as the plants need it. I use more nitrogen than I did with row water.”
The Glens fertilize to hit yield goals for specific fields. “We fertilize for two-and-half bales per acre on good land, but our program varies with each field and depends on water and soil.
“We apply nitrogen during the summer as needed through the pivots or with our drip irrigation systems (305 acres). Our crop consultant lets us know if a field looks like it needs nitrogen. But we know the soils, field histories and yield potential of all our acreage.”
They soil test part of the farm every year.
The Applings start with 100 pounds of 11-52-0 just before listing. They add another 50 to 70 pounds of nitrogen in the summer through the pivots.
Water remains the limiting factor, whether farmers irrigate or rely on Mother Nature.
Reynolds says drip irrigation costs a bit more to install than pivot systems but he's convinced that higher yields make up the difference.
“I also may use a little more water with drip than I did with row-water, but this is much more efficient. For one thing, I can water later in the season, about 10 days longer with drip irrigation.”
He says cotton doesn't stress from moisture deficiency as it would with furrow irrigation during drought periods when he couldn't apply water as timely as he wanted.
“I have to manage the water I have carefully,” Bearden says. “Some years, I put on all the water I can get out. If it rains enough, I'll shut the system down.”
Tammy Glen says timing irrigation makes a difference in cotton growth. “Water is essential for fruiting cotton,” she says. “But water management depends on each field. We need more water in minimum till fields than in conventional because we have to grow a cover crop. We spray Pix instead of cutting back on water.”
The Applings like the convenience of pivots.
“It's easier to manage,” David says. “We can crank them up and get some moisture and hold it and then wait for rain. We can add 1inch in four days and then shut it off for four days. It is convenient.”
Williams depends on natural rainfall and says rain was limited on the 2005 crop. “But it came at just the right time,” he said.
They all agree that timing, whether it's a Pix application, irrigation, weed control, insecticide spray, harvest aid or planting, makes a big difference in getting the crop off to a good start and keeping it healthy.
Tillage also plays a role and each has a different system that works for specific operations.
Bearden likes to break his land.
“I'm not a no-till farmer,” he says. “I still break with a moldboard plow in the winter if moisture is adequate. If not, I may just list it up.”
He says deep tillage in sandy land helps hold the soil in place. “That works best for me,” he says. “I don't need separate pieces of equipment for dryland and irrigated acreage.”
Williams cut back on tillage. “I'm doing less but not quite no-till.”
The Glens follow a minimum till program on part of their land.
“Half of our irrigated acreage is in minimum-till production,” Tammy says. “With circle rows, furrow dikes and drag hoses on our pivots we can come close to drip irrigation production and efficiency.”
The Applings put about one-third of their dryland acreage in wheat and plant no-till cotton in stubble the next spring. The third year, that acreage goes into conventionally tilled cotton.
Managing pests — diseases, insects and weeds — may be easier than it used to be with improved technology like Roundup Ready, Liberty Link and Bollgard cotton, along with some varieties resistant to ease and nematode pressure. Growers say the Boll Weevil Eradication Program, now in effect all across the Southwest, makes the task easier and allows them to make more cotton. But eliminating the boll weevil makes room for other pests.
Reynolds says Bollgard 2 improves efficiency and production. “I use Temik at planting and that usually gets me through early squaring,” he says.
Bearden says lygus and aphids replace weevils and worms as key problems. “We can get one bug complex under control and then we have problems with something else,” he says. “Lygus began to show up after we took care of the boll weevil. We need to save those early-season bolls. We mange each pest differently, but I see no need in growing a pound of cotton and letting something get it.”
He's also watching aphids closely. “We don't want to develop a reputation as a sticky cotton area. We have not had that reputation but we don't want to risk it.”
The Appling family operation relies on an Extension integrated pest-management agent to check some of their acreage; they do the rest on their own.
They credit the Boll Weevil Eradication Program with improving pest control. Scouts found no weevils in their area this year.
“This is one great success story,” Joe says.
Williams says Bollgard II varieties have worked, but did not yield as well as other varieties. “We had no real bollworm pressure this year,” he says, “and Bollgard may have helped with that.”
He also likes seed treatments to help with early-season insect control. “I used to apply a lot of in-furrow insecticides. Now, I use seed with the insecticide on it.”
The Boll Weevil Eradication Program that began diapause control this fall will remove another costly pest from his cotton operation. “I think the program helped the crop this first year,” he says. “Spray applications kept them from stinging late bolls. We had a lot of weevils in the area.”
All of Reynolds' acreage is in Bollgard varieties except for his refugia.
The Glens rely on their consultant for pest management recommendations. “He suggests a routine early spray to control lygus, then recommends we allow beneficials to build up to get cotton to where Bollgard II takes care of the worms.
“Our crop consultant recommends Bollgard on every irrigated acre,” Glen says. “It will pay for itself by saving trips across the fields and insecticide use. Bollgard II controls more worms than Bollgard I.” She says the newer Bollgard is more effective on fall armyworms.
A combination of herbicide resistant varieties, over-the-top applications of Roundup or Ignite, and some traditional weed control strategies help keep weeds in check for these five farm operations.
Bearden uses Roundup Ready and Liberty Link, a pre-plant, yellow herbicide on all his cotton and adds Caparol and Treflan over the top “right behind the planter.”
“We use a yellow herbicide on everything,” David Appling says. “We'll put a band of Direx on most acreage at planting.”
In season, they use Roundup and cultivate. They rely on shielded sprayers for post-emergence controls.
“Morning glory has been a problem in some fields,” Mark says. “Roundup is not particularly good on morning glory, so we've tried some Liberty Link varieties. That's not a complete answer but it's another useful tool.”
Economics dictate some weed control practices. “We used to spot spray a lot to get clean fields,” Joe says. “We don't do that as much now. We can't afford to plant without Treflan and Direx.”
Williams says Roundup Ready Flex varieties may allow him to use hooded sprayers less often to clean up weeds. “I sometimes get a little splash-back from the sprayers. He typically uses some Caparol “on better ground and Prowl for grass control.”
He says his control program has done a good job on Texas tie vine, Texas panicum, and devil's claw.
Reynolds always uses a yellow herbicide, banded at planting, and then Roundup over the top. “I'm just beginning to use Ignite and I think Roundup Flex looks good, too.”
He says the extended application window with both Roundup Ready Flex and Liberty Link varieties add flexibility to his weed control strategy and give him better options for troublesome weeds such as morning glory.
The Glens use Roundup Ready technology on much of their acreage.
Fungicide-treated seed helps reduce damage from seedling disease for Bearden. The Glens use a nematode tolerant variety, Stoneville 5599, to limit damage. Tammy Glen also says disease and nematode activity seem less in minimum-till fields.
A plant growth regulator plays a crucial role in irrigated cotton. Glen likes to get some Pix in the cotton early in the season so the plant begins early on to concentrate energy for boll development instead of vegetation.
Ed Reynolds says Pix is especially important in drip irrigation to “keep plants from making too much stalk.
The Applings like to keep harvest prep “as simple as possible,” Mark says. Reynolds says the process is a bit more complicated with drip irrigation.
“We need a bit more management and expense with drip,” he says. “It also takes more water to assure adequate penetration because foliage is heavier.”
Each operation employs unique tactics that help maintain yields.
Williams says rotation plays a key role in his production scheme. He's planting about 750 acres of cotton, a little less than he used to plant, and 1200 acres of milo and “mostly corn. I rotate everything and I have about quit growing anything on root rot ground.”
Bearden credits an excellent labor force for maintaining high yield and quality standards.
Glen says technology has improved their operation and looks ahead for even more significant changes.
Global Positioning System agriculture may be the next innovation, she says.
“We can control our pivot systems now by phone and slow them down or speed them up, depending on conditions. We have towable pivots and we want the unit to be in a dry place so we can move a vehicle in to pick it up. We can reset it through the computer and walk it to the tow area. That saves time.”
She also keeps track of water pressure. “And if the system gets shut down or stuck, it calls in.”
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TOP 10 PRODUCTION PRACTICES TO MAINTAIN HIGH COTTON YIELDS
Below are the top 10 production practices farmers featured in a recent Southwest Farm Press series use to maintain high yields. Farms included both dryland and irrigated acreage.
- Variety selection
- Irrigation management
- Pest Management: insect, disease and weed control
- Harvest prep
- Labor management