Sorghum award winner says: Patience keys farm production

Some people look at a partially filled glass of water and see it as half empty. Others see it as half full. Chris Bass assumes that sooner or later he'll fill it up.

Even in a year with anticipated low commodity prices and increased production costs, he's optimistic.

Patience and preparation, he says, play crucial roles in any successful farm operation.

That philosophy helped Bass, who farms near Muleshoe, Texas, earn first place for the last two years in the National Grain Sorghum production contest. He won for the irrigated conventional tillage category both years. His 2005 average topped 192 bushels per acre. Bailey County's average is 64.3 bushels per acre.

Grain sorghum functions primarily as a rotation crop for Bass, who says cotton remains his main income producer. But he's convinced that rotation crops pay their own way.

“We can usually pencil in a profit on rotation crops,” he says. “Otherwise, why would we plant them? We could just take a few pounds per acre less on our main crop.”

He also grows corn and wheat. “Wheat is mostly for grazing.”

He admits that finding profit potential in anything in 2006 looks difficult. “Right now, it's hard to pencil in a profit,” he says. “And some farmers have decided to lay their land out. I can't do that. I want to be ready when the economy turns around. And it will turn around.”

He says some of the worst crop profit predictions he's witnessed often turned out to be “not nearly as bad as we expected.”

The past two years, for instance, have been almost opposite as far as rainfall but both produced good crops. “In 2004, we had plenty of rain, about 50 inches. In 2005 we had very little, around 18 inches, but it was timely. My grain sorghum stressed some but it will take some stress.”

Bass irrigates all his crops, “except some dryland wheat planted just for grazing.” He's more than a bit concerned about irrigation costs for 2006. “Fuel bills will be a big factor,” he says. He's watering wheat this winter to provide adequate grazing for stocker cattle. “The ones that have gone to market so far have shown good gains,” he says. “But we've had no real winter and that helped.”

He's also watering land as he plows in fertilizer.

Bass is concerned about fuel prices. Even though he won the grain sorghum yield contest with conventional tillage, he's plowing less on most of his acreage.

“Most of my fields are minimal till,” he says. He's leery of a complete no-till program. “I plow if I need to prevent a bad morning glory problem,” he says. “And I apply atrazine at layby.

“I'm using more reduced tillage every year to save energy. But I firmly believe in some deep tillage to get rid of a hardpan. Without tillage I see a severe compaction problem.”

He tills every winter to rip in fertilizer and he “makes one more trip in front of the planter. I'm making three tillage trips now, compared to five or 10 years ago when I was making as many as 15, five or six in the winter.”

Bass tried no-till wheat once and said the compaction hurt production. “It may be the soil type, a sandy loam that's really tight,” he says.

He also tried different tillage methods with cotton under two center pivot units. “One circle that I didn't plow made a bale per acre less,” he says.

He predicts that improved tillage tools will allow farmers to cut back on trips across the field and still shatter hardpans.

His father has been experimenting in a dryland field with a three-pronged rotation, one-third wheat, one-third grain sorghum and one-third fallow.

“That program works well in droughty years,” Bass says. “He's made 6,000 pounds of grain sorghum per acre and that's an excellent dryland yield. But it takes a lot of acreage to lay one-third of it out every year.”

Bass says he probably will make some production changes in 2006.

“I'll use more manure and compost and less commercial fertilizer,” he says. “Based on the analysis, dollar for dollar, I get more value from manure and compost.”

Bass uses some manure or compost every year and alternates between organic nutrients and commercial. “I usually will not go more than two years with the organics. Occasionally I may stretch to three but I don't want to get behind on fertility levels. It's too hard to catch back up.”

He ordered manure and compost back in August. “We have to line it up early to get enough,” he says. Typically, he gets manure from feedlots. Some dairies, which are becoming more numerous in the area, occasionally have manure but Bass says it takes more dairy manure to get the same amount of nutrients he can get from feedlots.

“And dairies are beginning to use more manure for themselves,” he says.

He doesn't like to play catch up with irrigation either. “If we get behind, we get hurt,” he says. “I may shut off my irrigation system in fields with limited water for a day if I get a 1-inch rain. Then I turn it back on.”

He gets an evapotranspiration (PET) report every other day to indicate moisture loss and to help schedule irrigation.

He says integrated pest management also plays a big role in protecting his crop.

“I am fortunate to have a good IPM agent, Monty Vandiver, and two good county Extension agents, Curtis Preston (Bailey County), and Cody Hill (Parmer County).

“Monty advises on all my crops and has saved me money. Several times if I hadn't followed his advice I would have treated when I didn't need to.”

He says variety selection is an important part of his grain sorghum yield goal. Pioneer 84G62 has been the best yield maker for his irrigated acreage. That's the variety he used in his winning plot.

But he'd like to see more work done on variety testing for grain sorghum in the High Plains.

“I've learned a lot about cotton from variety tests,” he says. “I wish we had more trials for grain sorghum. I'd like to see research on plant population as well. I used to plant from 88,000 to 100,000 seed per acre then began to cut back and am now at 43,000 to 46,000 per acre. I learned the hard way that fewer plants produce better. We need more test plots to provide that kind of information.”

He'll stick with a sound rotation program. “I don't follow a set schedule on rotation,” he says. “It depends on the field and water. With better moisture I like a corn and cotton rotation. With less moisture I plant cotton and grain sorghum. I also plant cotton on cotton in places and cotton behind wheat.

“But rotation pays. Things change every year (prices, production costs, etc.). I don't base my rotation pattern on commodity prices.”

He says if he loses a cotton crop to hail he plants back with grain sorghum. “I know I can harvest sorghum for grain, bale it or graze it.

“My father started raising grain sorghum in the mid-1980s, mostly for grazing, but then he started making good yields. We won't get rich from grain sorghum in one year but it's stable.”

Bass has changed his production philosophy a bit since he started farming on his own. “When I first started I did a lot of the plowing and other labor,” he says. “And I loved it. I can't do as much of that anymore. I have to tend to the business side. Farming is still a way of life but we also have to run it like the business it is.”

That's why he's committed to making a crop every year, in spite of the pre-season outlooks and challenges. He's a farmer and can't conceive of laying land out and not having anything to do.

And he's convinced that optimism eventually pays off as long as he understands that keeping the land in good shape gives him an opportunity to make a profit.

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