Technology boost yields for West Texas cotton

David Pearson was trying to finish planting 3,400 acres of cotton in early June, hoping for a rain to give his dryland acreage a better chance, and hoping 2009 bears little resemblance to last year.

“I hope I never see another year like that,” he said. “Until August and September cotton seemed to be as loaded as I’d ever seen it.”

It went downhill from there. But he planted more cotton acreage this year. He usually plants 2,000 acres in cotton. “I took some wheat acreage and some milo out and put it in cotton,” he said. “Other than that, not much has changed. We just need water.”

He said the last good rain that fell on the Levelland, Texas, area was way back in October. Rain since came in small increments, about a tenth of an inch at a time.

Pearson irrigates 50 percent of his cotton acreage with 170 of that in subsurface drip. “Drip did well last year, averaging 3 bales per acre. We averaged 3.5 the year before. Last year was just too hot and too windy.”

He also irrigates 200 acres of peanuts. That acreage is down 400 acres from 2008. “We typically plant 300 acres of peanuts,” he said. Last year he planted 600. “We made a good crop last year.”

So did a lot of other peanut farmers across the belt. Markets declined last fall with oversupply and then a Salmonella scare. Pearson said late contracts were a little more favorable than early offerings.

But that was too late to bump up peanut acreage. “We have to know in January what we’re planting under irrigation,” he said. “And we have to know where we’re going to plant cotton.”

This will be Pearson’s first year in the past three that he has no grain sorghum. “I planted milo last year behind some cotton that blew out. I also planted about 1,000 acres early. It wasn’t a bad crop and averaged about 2,000 pounds per acre in a drought year. Test weight was good.”

He likes milo as a rotation crop “every year or two. I like to rotate wheat, peanuts and milo with cotton,” he said.

The 2009 wheat crop was hurt by cold weather and drought. “We harvested only about 200 acres of wheat for grain,” Pearson said. “We cut some for hay. We also have a little triticale.”

Cotton, at 3,400 acres remains his staple crop. He’s planting FiberMax 9180 “mostly, but also have some 9160 and 840. I also have some Deltapine 0935."

He switched from stripper to picker varieties five years ago. “Average yield went from 1.5 to 2.5 bales per acre,” he said. He’d like to see those increased yield averages represented in insurance coverage. “We go back 10 years so historic yields are still pretty low. I’d like to see that changed.”

He’s also added GPS technology to his operation and said that has improved efficiency. “I started with GPS on one tractor and last year I had it on everything but the combine. It saves time and now anybody can run the equipment. I typically rely on myself and one hand.” But with GPS units, he can put other workers on other pieces of equipment.

Pearson watches the cotton market and said at planting time prices were up a little. He’s also been watching how the new farm program will affect his operation and has studied the ACRE option.

“It makes no sense for me to sign up for ACRE. Last year I lost 1,200 acres of cotton and didn’t qualify for ACRE payments. I lost 50 percent of my cotton crop and didn’t qualify. I followed failed cotton with milo and didn’t qualify. That makes no sense.”

He said one advantage of grain sorghum is that a cotton farmer can plant it quickly behind failed cotton and still make something from the field.

Back in June he was hoping that scenario did not play out and that his 3,400 acres of cotton make it to harvest.

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TAGS: Cotton
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