Keys to cotton profit: tillage, technology

Editor's note: Texas cotton farmers sometimes get branded as low-input producers. The thought process goes that trying to grow cotton in an area as unpredictable as the Texas Plains or in rain-dependent Central Texas, comes with so many risks that putting a lot of money into the crop makes little sense considering all the things that can go wrong with it.

That production philosophy may make sense to some and more than a few growers have eked out a living growing dryland cotton with minimum inputs. But a growing number of Central and West Texas farmers are increasing management intensity, in both dryland and, especially, in irrigated fields to enhance yield potential and to produce the highest quality fiber possible.

Following is the third in a series of articles depicting some of the best management practices farmers are using to improve profit potential in Texas cotton.

A little less tillage may be the only compensation Ellis County cotton and grain farmer Clifford Williams makes to higher fertilizer and fuel prices.

He will continue to rely on improved varieties and technology to keep yield targets above a bale per acre on his dryland cotton.

“I'll do less tillage,” Williams says, “but not quite no-till. I bought a shredder to cut stalks and I'll use a field cultivator instead of a disk. I plowed everything this year with a chisel plow but I didn't plow as much as usual.”

Williams says chopping inputs may do more harm in lost yield than it can save in cost cuts.

“My father used to say we had to make a half-bale of cotton to make any money. Now, we have to get a bale.”

He's done that most years since the late 1980s and the trend is upward. “We had a few years that we made more than a bale per acre,” he says. “We made a bale and a quarter in 1989 and close to that in 1991. The last three years we've moved closer to better than a bale per acre. We've also come up on milo and corn.”

He says milo targets used to be 4500 to 5000 pounds per acre. He's boosted that to 5000 to 7500. Corn goals are up from 80 to 90 bushels per acre to 110 to 115. “We've made some 130 to 140-bushel corn,” Williams says.

“The last few years have been good crop years for Central Texas,” says Glen Moore, Texas Extension integrated pest management specialist in Waxahachie.

“We had a lot of rain last year,” Williams says. “That's the key. This year, we didn't get as much rain on our cotton but we got timely rains that made one of the best crops we've ever had.”

Williams says some of his weakest cotton land made a bale-and-a-half and some fields were pushing two bales per acre. “It's about as good a year overall as we've had,” he says. “I've made some two-bale cotton before, but this will be a better overall average. Last year was good but we didn't have two-bale cotton.”

He says annual rainfall always makes the difference in yields but he attributes the upward tend to better technology. “Our cotton varieties are better than they were just five years ago,” he says. “Yield and quality are better.”

He sees a lot of varieties every year in test plots he's worked with Extension on for some 40 years. Seeing what new varieties will do on his fields under his management conditions gives him a heads up on what he may want to plant in the future.

Bollgard and Roundup Ready give farmers valuable tools that improve efficiency, he says.

“The technology, Roundup Ready, Roundup Ready Flex, Bollgard and now Bollgard II, may be expensive, but it pays. These are good tools. We're doing a lot less cultivation than we used to. We've cut out trips across the fields. It's expensive to run farm equipment, so we're saving money.”

He used a Roundup Flex variety, DPL 491, this year and says it's promising. Yield was still uncertain in early October, but he says the variety looks good.

“The Flex technology looks great,” he says. “We can make a timely second application of Roundup just ahead of first bloom. I have clean fields.”

He hopes to use more Roundup Flex in 2006, “if the numbers pan out.”

He says Flex may allow him to use hooded sprayers less often to clean up weeds. “I sometimes get a little splash-back from the sprayers. He typically uses some Caparol “on better ground and Prowl for grass control.”

He says his control program has done a good job on Texas tie vine, Texas panicum, and devil's claw.

He says Bollgard II varieties have worked well but did not yield as well as other varieties. “We had no real bollworm pressure this year,” he says, “and Bollgard may have helped with that.”

He also likes seed treatments to help with early-season insect control. “I used to apply a lot of in-furrow insecticides. Now, I use seed with the insecticide on it.”

He's concerned about high fertilizer prices but can't make yield goals by wholesale rate cuts. “I don't want too much fertilizer,” he says. “I didn't over-fertilize the 2005 crop. But, corn yields were off 10 to 15 bushels per acre so cotton will make up for it.”

Cotton will use some of the residual fertilizer from the corn land.

Williams says rotation plays a key role in making yield goals. He's planting about 750 acres of cotton, a little less than he used to plant, and 1200 acres of milo and corn, “mostly corn. I rotate everything and I have about quit growing anything on root rot ground.”

All his acreage is dryland. “Some years the land is drier than others,” he says.

Williams hopes the Boll Weevil Eradication Program that began diapause control this fall will remove another costly pest from his cotton operation. “I think the program helped the crop this first year,” he says. “Spray applications kept them from stinging late bolls. We had a lot of weevils in the area.”

Moore says trap catches have run 10 or more per week. “We usually get from zero to one.”

Williams thinks cotton will grade better without weevil and worm damage. “We often get some slight spotted cotton with insect damage,” he says.

“The first year in the program ran smoothly,” he says. “We had very few problems. Some fields were sprayed four times but next spring we ought to see a reduction in over-wintered weevil numbers.”

Williams usually makes overwintered weevil sprays. “I like to spray by June 10 to 15,” he says. He uses early weevil applications to get fleahoppers and lygus. “I make the first application about June 7 or 8. I'll make a second June 12 or 14.”

He uses an IPM consultant to scout in-season. “We've worked together on integrated pest management for 30 years,” Moore says. “Clifford is on the IPM committee and helps provide direction to our program. We're spraying a lot less insecticide than we used to. The result is that we are less harsh on the environment and are improving water quality.”

“IPM and new technology are keys to making yield goals,” Williams says.

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