High Plains farmer: Ag success tied with technology

When Dan Smith started farming on his own back in the 1970s, he never imagined he'd see the changes that are now routine on his Southern High Plains' farm.

He never imagined he'd plant cotton with a satellite, that he'd park his breaking plow, rely on seed technology for basic insect control or apply a non-selective herbicide over the top of vigorous young cotton to kill weeds with no damage to the cotton plant.

He also never expected to invest close to $300 a bag in cottonseed.

“I never thought I'd see the changes in farming that have occurred in the last few years,” Smith says.

His family has witnessed a long evolution of agriculture on the Texas High Plains. He's the fourth generation to farm near Lockney, Texas. He farms in Floyd, Hale and Briscoe counties.

His great grandfather came here in 1894. “He wrote that he was amazed at the wildlife and the vegetation in the area,” Smith says.

His grandfather's first home was a dugout. Smith now lives in a comfortable brick home his grandfather built back in the 1950s. “My father bought it from my grandfather and I bought it from my father.”

Smith's wife also comes from a long line of farmers. “She's a fourth generation farmer, too,” he says. “We were both born to it. I never wanted to do anything else.”

His dad did insist, however, that he get an education before committing to a farming career. “After high school I told my dad I wanted to farm and he asked me where I was going to do it,” Smith says. “I said I would farm with him, and he said I would not until I got a degree and then we'd talk about it.”

He earned a degree in agricultural economics from Texas Tech University and went right back to the farm. He's been there since the mid 1970s and says 2005 marks the most expensive crop he's ever made.

It could have been worse.

“If I'd had to hire hoe hands at $8 an hour, I'm not certain I could have made it,” he says.

Roundup Ready Flex cotton varieties allowed him to eliminate the hoe labor. “For the first time in my life, I didn't hire a single hoe hand.”

“Flex varieties were outstanding. Flex technology was a life saver.”

Pigweed posed considerable threat to cotton for the past few years. “It has been prolific. Every time we watered cotton, we'd get a flush of pigweeds and Roundup Ready was not effective because we couldn't apply the herbicide late enough in the season. We were about to go back to conventional varieties.”

He plans to use all Flex varieties next year. “Flex is changing the cotton industry.”

He says FiberMax, Beltwide Cotton Genetics, NexGen and Delta and Pine Land Flex varieties all performed well in 2006. “They saved my life,” he says.

“I had gone back to hoeing cotton because pigweed got bad in the 2004 and 2005 crops. I don't know what changed but in July and August, even with hooded sprayer applications, every time we watered, we set the pigweeds off.

“This year, following a weed surge, we sprayed Roundup over the Flex cotton and within a week the weeds were gone. You'd never know they had been there. We had to hire custom applicators to help cover the acreage, but within a couple of days, we wiped the weeds out. Flex is great technology.”

Before Flex, he also used a rope-wick applicator to keep pigweeds in check, with limited effect. “The rope wick is less than 100 percent effective,” he says.

He's also using stacked-gene varieties, mostly Flex with Bollgard II.

“I haven't sprayed for bollworms since 2000,” he says, “not even in non-Bt cotton. I'm really not certain if we need Bt varieties or not. Until 2000 I sprayed once or twice every year. And 2000 was a terrible year. We had boll weevils, armyworms and bollworms. They nearly knocked us out.”

The boll weevil eradication program started in 2001. “And I can't figure out what happened to bollworms. They're still here in corn. Other areas in the Southern Plains have had to spray.”

He says even area entomologists can't explain why bollworms have caused no problems the last few years. Not that he's complaining. He has plenty of other challenges.

Expense tops the list for 2006.

“I've never had expenses like this,” he says. Prolonged drought accompanied by high energy prices hiked production costs this year. Smith irrigates from 75 percent to 80 percent of his cotton acreage and with virtually no rainfall in the growing season he made the crop on supplemental water.

“Two bales per acre used to be a good profit,” Smith says. “Now we need to make three.”

A lot of those costs occur early.

“We used to pay $11 a bag for cottonseed,” he says. “I never thought I'd see a time when a bag of seed would be worth more than a bale of cotton. But with technology fees and seed treatments we spend close to $300 a bag. With cotton at 50 cents a pound, we get about $250 a bale.”

He keeps costs as low as possible by delaying fertilizing cotton and applying nutrients through his irrigation system.

He saves water with drop hoses on all center pivot units, and he can switch from a dribble to a spray pattern with a twist of the nozzle. He says the cost of making irrigated cotton is now close to the cost of irrigated corn. “I hope Monsanto keeps their technology fees reasonable.”

But he likes the technology. Reduced-tillage systems have helped Smith control production costs. “We're able to plant minimum-till crops because of Roundup Ready varieties,” he says. ”I used to rip every acre we could get to every winter. I still do some tillage, but not every year - every three or four years, maybe. The price of diesel also affects tillage.”

He plants cotton in grain stubble or in terminated wheat.

Global positioning system farming also allows him to save time and money. “I have a drip irrigation field with tape every 40 inches. With GPS I plant directly on top of the drip tape.” He says the guidance system increases efficiency for tractor drivers.

Moving away from row watering to center pivots and drip irrigation also helps reduce labor needs.

“We're farming twice the acreage now, compared to 10 years ago, with the same labor. Reduced tillage is one reason; more efficient irrigation and GPS are also factors.”

He's looking at new cropping options, too, and adjusts to local demands. A recent increase in dairies in the High Plains created a need for grain and forage crops. “We're growing silage for a dairy just out of Plainview,” Smith says. “Legacy Dairies milks 6,000 cows three times a day. They need a lot of feed and forage.”

The dairies have improved crop options for local farmers and helped many move to a better rotation. “We have more alternatives than we did before the dairies came in,” Smith says.

He's grown wheat silage and is trying triticale for silage this year. He may double crop cotton behind the triticale. “Double crop cotton works well in wet years, not so well in droughts.”

Triticale is a good option for reduced tillage, too. Smith says it makes a stiff stalk that holds up well and helps protect seedling cotton from blowing sand. “I never thought I'd double crop cotton,” Smith says. When he plants cotton in wheat residue he terminates the wheat early and gets less organic matter from the immature stalks than he does from harvested grain.

He made few equipment adjustments to accommodate the grain or to switch to reduced tillage. “I use a Max Emerge planter and need no special coulters to plant in stubble.”

He still depends on cotton, with 80 percent of his acreage in lint production. High grain prices and local dairy markets could encourage farmers to increase grain acreage but limited water will restrict how much, Smith says.

He's considered adding more milo but says peak water demand for milo comes during highest moisture requirements for cotton. Corn peak demand is earlier but water on some fields may not be adequate for corn. With fair water, he says he can make corn and cotton. His water availability on irrigated acreage ranges from poor to good. “Some is only slightly better than dryland.”

Moisture will limit grain expansion.

“I'm not certain what this area will do with grain acreage, considering higher prices, but I think cotton acreage will stay about the same.”

Smith says changes over the past few years have added significantly to production costs but some of those changes have allowed him to increase productivity. He gets close to 4 bales per acre on drip irrigation. “That's not uncommon with drip,” he says.

GPS saves time and labor. Reduced tillage cuts energy costs, improves soil, holds precious moisture and cuts labor demands.

And seed technology makes weed and pest management more effective and less labor intensive.

“We've doubled acreage with the same three-man labor force (himself and two employees). And expansion was necessary because profit margins are so thin.”

The 2006 crop ranges from very good to nothing. “Irrigated cotton is good,” he says. “Dryland production is non-existent. We had to destroy most of it.”

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