Bill Lovelady’s goal is to become water independent — to rely on groundwater to irrigate his usual 1,000 acres of cotton and 80 acres of pecan trees, and to stop depending on the uncertainty of river water and Elephant Butte Reservoir, which was holding only about 8.5 percent of capacity in late September.
With average annual rainfall of 7 inches and Elephant Butte dependent on meager rain and unpredictable snowmelt from New Mexico and Colorado mountain ranges, Far West Texas cotton farmers can ill afford to waste one drop of irrigation water.
“We have to manage water carefully,” says Lovelady, who grows mostly Pima cotton in El Paso and Hudspeth counties. “Everything gets laser leveled; we cut off the little hills across the fields to improve irrigation efficiency.”
Lovelady, the 2016 Farm Press/Cotton Foundation High Cotton Award winner for the Southwest region, understands conservation from a need to improve irrigation efficiency to the necessity of preserving topsoil in what has to be one of the most challenging places to grow profitable yields of high quality cotton.
“Ideally, we run the laser level over the fields as often as we can,” he said in late September when his Pima cotton was showing its distinctive yellow blossoms and stalks were holding decent boll loads. “We often run out of time to do everything, but fields don’t need leveling every year.”
Laser leveling helps distribute water from furrow irrigation more evenly down the rows, he says. “For the last three years water quantity and quality have been less than desirable. I plant the driest two farms in El Paso and Hudspeth counties. I have 100 percent water rights in El Paso County — but 100 percent of nothing is not a lot of water.”
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That’s why he’s digging wells. “I pump water into irrigation ditches from the wells,” he says. He farms right on the Rio Grande, but says the river seldom gets enough rain during spring and summer to recharge Elephant Butte.
WATER QUALITY VARIES
He typically pre-waters fields before planting and then irrigates five times during the season. “I’m usually through watering by late September. I was pumping late in Hudspeth this year, but I got a rain and shut it down. The only advantage to watering later is to make the ground easier to break.”
Lovelady drove around his El Paso and Hudspeth County farms, pointing out wells he’s already drilled, others in the process of being drilled, and some areas where he may drill wells later. For the most part, he finds decent water. “I have two wells in El Paso in use and two more ready for submersible pumps. We have pockets of good water, although some water sources have salt issues.
Water from the river also picks up salt. “With canal water, the farther upstream you go, the better the water. But as they take water out, when it goes back into the canal, it picks up salt.”
He’s more concerned about developing groundwater in Hudspeth County, where he has no water rights. “Without water rights it’s much more important to develop groundwater,” he says. “We have a much better chance of getting water back in the El Paso County fields.”
He’s made some production changes to stretch water supplies. “We hold off on planting now. We used to plant from April 1 through April 10, but we’re delaying to an April 20 through May 5 window — and we’ll go later if we have to. We also hold off on our first irrigation as long as we can to let the cotton develop a good root system.”
He’s cut back on tillage, too. “We think our wind erosion is horrible,” he says, although he admits that compared to the High Plains it’s not so bad. “We do get some sandstorms, but we don’t do any sand fighting. We occasionally get some seedlings cut off by blowing sand, but it’s not a major problem. “When I first started farming I used a moldboard plow on every acre, but now I chisel only.”
PREVENTED PLANTING STATUS
The 2015 cotton crop — what Lovelady was able to plant — “looked pretty good” in September. Drought resulted in much of his usual acreage going to prevented planting status. “I had to keep the pecan trees viable, so I left out some cotton land and took prevented planting to save the permanent crop.”
At this interview, Lovelady had just returned from Germany, and was happy that just before he left on his trip a 3-inch rain came. “It was good for the pecan trees and the cotton. We typically get a rain around the first of October, and it does a world of good for the crops and limits sticky cotton. Sticky cotton is not usually a serious problem, but those October rains help prevent it.” By early October “quite a bit of cotton is open.”
Later rain can be detrimental. “I don’t want Pima to get wet,” he says. “It’s a color issue.” He’s grown Pima since he started farming on his own in 1975. “Some years I will grow only Pima and sometimes I’ll plant 2-to-1 Pima/Upland.”
He has no drought-tolerant or Bt Pima varieties. “About the only insect pest we see in Pima is the pink bollworm, and we have just about eradicated it.” A heliothis flight often comes in early July. “We usually spray just once, maybe twice. Insect pests have not been a big issue. Bt Upland varieties and pink bollworm eradication for Pima make it a lot easier. But we do have to pay the technology fee.” He grows only Roundup Ready varieties, Pima and Upland.
PREMIUM FOR PIMA
He likes the Pima premium. “It’s at $1.35 (in late September), which is less than what it has been. It’s also not uncommon for our Pima cotton to make as much yield as the Upland. We have no quality concerns with Pima in this area — it likes hot, dry weather. I used to believe Pima would take less water, but with new varieties I see less difference.” The higher gossypol content does make Pima less attractive to insects, he says.
He doesn’t get the 4 to 4.5 bales per acre that some High Plains cotton growers make with drip irrigation. “We haven’t found the most efficient means of irrigation here,” he says. Water quality is an issue with drip systems because of total dissolved solids that build up in the tubes.
He’s looking for about 2 bales per acre from Pima cotton and 3 bales from upland. “Like all farmers, I want to make as much as I can. I haven’t had those yields for the last two years, though. I haven’t made any upland for the last three years.”
Lovelady says herbicide-resistant weeds have not been a problem — yet. “We see some careless weeds on sandy land, but we always have those. I think maybe the yellow herbicides run out.” He says Roundup still “dries them up.”
He never backed off from using yellow herbicides. “I’ve always used them, and I know which fields will run out. With precision agriculture I’ll know where those specific areas are, and may add a little more yellow to those spots.
“We’re just getting into GPS agriculture,” he says. “My daughter, LeAnn, is extremely interested in farming and is almost finished mapping every field. So, we are working into it.” He says his son, Ty, is also interested in the farm. Both are working off the farm for now; LeAnn is a school teacher and Ty works at the University of Texas at Dallas. When farm economics look more promising, Lovelady says, they may come back to the farm. He and wife Suzy now live in El Paso, about a 40-minute drive east to the farm in Tornillo, where they lived for 35 years.
Lovelady has been committed to cotton since he started farming, and he’s given a lot back to the industry. He’s been president and chairman of the board of the National Cotton Council, chairman of Supima, which he says was especially enjoyable because of “all the hands-on stuff.” He was chairman for the Beltwide Cotton Conferences Planning Committee for several years and chairman of the Producer Steering Committee, now the American Cotton Producers.
“I’ve received far more honors than I deserve,” he says. “But I’ve had the great opportunity to get to know people, not just from across the Cotton Belt but from around the world.”
The High Cotton Award will be presented to winners from the Southeast, Delta, Southwest, and Western states at an honors breakfast Feb. 26 at the Mid-South Farm and Gin Show at Memphis.