Grower learns drought survival

Rotation, less tillage, early termination Editors note: This is the fourth in a continuing series of stories detailing how innovative farmers have survived the effects of prolonged drought.

TERRELL HAMANN crawled out of the air-conditioned cab of his grain combine and into the sweltering heat of a late July afternoon. He climbed down into the stubbled rows of corn he had just harvested and turned the machine over to his neighbor, Herbert Bohls, with whom he swaps equipment and labor.

Dry chaff from the combine mixed with powdery dust from a field that had not seen rain in more than six weeks as he walked over.

I asked how harvest was going.

"We're doing okay," he said, "but we're not out of the woods yet."

Hamann runs a dryland farm near Coupland, Texas, in Williamson and Travis counties, an area where rainfall is infrequent and often ill-timed.

"We average about 34 to 35 inches of rain a year," Hamann said. "Sometimes it all comes at once. The tendency the past few years has been dry. We've had only one or two years with adequate moisture."

He said the grain crops this year benefited from timely spring rains.

"We waited until early Mach to plant," he said. "We usually start in late February, but we waited on moisture. Corn is doing fair and we made a better-than-average milo crop."

Hamann spotted a number of corn kernels on the ground behind the combine and asked Bohls to take a swing through a small field corner while he checked behind for lost grain. He watched for a few minutes then used his radio to pass along instruction to change speeds.

He explained that with corn prices as low as they are and drought conditions making yields uncertain, he can't afford to leave any grain in the field.

"We're cutting about 80 to 90 bushels of corn per acre," Hamann said. "We harvested 4500 pounds of maize per acre. That's a good yield for us."

He's less optimistic about his cotton crop but says harvest is better than he expected, "in the middle of a drought. It's not a bumper crop, but it's average."

"We have no sub-surface moisture," he said. "And cotton is not looking good. The rains stopped when the cotton crop needed it." He was about half through harvest in late August.

The best news about cotton, he said, is the Boll Weevil Eradication Program, which will begin diapause sprays in fall 2001.

"Long-term, that's the only option we have if we want to continue growing cotton," he said.

HAMANN IS accustomed to farming dry, and he's adjusting to make the best of arid conditions. "I'm reducing trips across the field," he said. "I cultivate less and use more herbicides to control weeds instead of plowing. It costs too much money to plow, considering fuel, labor and equipment.

"I also conserve moisture by eliminating cultivation. I have to look at a lot of little things to improve yield potential."

He's not committed to no-till production but has settled on a reduced tillage system.

He's cautions about across-the-board cutbacks, however. "I can't skimp on fertilizer and superior varieties. I'll just shoot myself in the foot. Dekalb hybrids have done well on this farm."

He's learning other ways to conserve moisture. "Terminating crops earlier helps," he said. "I learned that last year from a strip of cotton that had been infected with root rot and died. Maize and corn planted in that area stayed green, even in dry weather because the cotton had not taken as much moisture out of the soil.

"Any time I can get cotton out early, I'll help the next crop. Cotton that stays in the field a long time pulls out a lot of moisture."

He's testing a maize plot this year to see if he can hold moisture for a subsequent cotton crop. "I terminated the crop early. and I'll see next year if I get a benefit," he said.

Rotation is a key element in Hamann's production system. He likes to plant cotton after corn or maize. "We have to rotate or root rot will tear us up bad. I actually prefer wheat, but I'd like to see better yields and higher prices before I plant much wheat."

He planted none last fall. "It was too dry at planting time to risk it," he said. Wheat used to be an easy crop to grow, but we have fungus diseases and mildew now that complicate wheat production."

He's uncertain about wheat this fall. "I will not plant much, if I plant any," he said. "I'll wait and see what futures do."

Hamann said irrigation is not a viable option for his farm. "This is a small farm (350 acres of cotton and 500 of corn and milo) and it's rolling, so it would be difficult to irrigate. Irrigation also means a big investment."

Spending that kind of money makes little sense, he said, with commodity prices as low as they are.

Hamann also is concerned about urban encroachment taking more farm land out of production. He farms just 40 miles north of Austin, one of the fastest growing municipalities in the Southwest.

"We see a lot of pressure on farm land," he said. "When a 300-acre farm is sold, other farmers can't afford to buy it. Developers get it and turn it into subdivisions or shopping malls.

"Somewhere down the road, we have to do something to protect farm land. We need to look at some kind of land use legislation, zoning or something."

Hamann invited me to ride combine with him for a few rounds, so we traded places with Bohls. The cool cab was a welcome relief from the 100 plus degrees outside.

Hamann pointed to an adjacent cotton field as we made the first round and indicated that the plants, even though small, were loaded.

He said he'll do some custom harvest and will again cooperate with neighbors to share equipment and manpower.

"That's another thing that helps us survive," he said. "Neither of us has to invest in as much equipment and we don't have to hire as much labor. It's also good to have some company in a grain combine or cotton stripper."

As Hamann maneuvered the combine through the last few rows we could see that the field was clean; few weeds marred the middles, proof that his reduced cultivation system is working.

He'll continue to refine the process and he'll find other ways to improve his odds against a weather pattern that has been much less than conducive to farming the past few years. He's committed to finding other techniques that help keep yields up, costs down and moisture in the soil.

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