West Texas cotton farmer hopes normal years resemble the last two

Marty Davis has listened to experienced cotton farmers say for decades that they hope to farm long enough to see a normal year.

“I hope the last two were normal,” Davis, a Crosby County, Texas, cotton farmer said as he got started on his 2006 crop.

“Last year was a very good year. We had two good years in a row.” And if those two were normal he'd like a few more just like them. He's doing all he can to replicate those yields and to improve production efficiency. Irrigation and fertilization efficiency play key roles. He just needs a little cooperation from Mother Nature.

Davis has farmed in a partnership with his father-in-law, Compton Cornelius, and brother-in-law, Robby Cornelius, since 1987, and said the last two crops were the best they've made since 1988. They irrigate two-thirds of the 3,000-acre cotton farm, most years.

“We run 12 center pivot units and we grew cotton on a 98-acre block of drip irrigation last year,” Davis said. “Drip did very well, 1,780 pounds per acre.”

Improving irrigation efficiency will be crucial as water resources decline and energy costs rise,” he said. Drip irrigation helps. “We'll put in another 60-acre block on Compton's farm this year.”

He said the first block went in on acreage where a pivot was not practical. “Drip works well where pivots don't fit,” he said. “Low producing land and acreage without good water are good bets for drip irrigation. It's a big investment but we believe drip systems will pay for themselves in two years, maybe one.”

Davis said a farmer needs one gallon of water per bale of cotton yield expected, about 3.5 gallons per acre, for drip irrigation.

“We apply about one-fourth inch per day and water three stages at a time with the drip system.”

He said they perk water up to germinate cottonseed after planting.

He's also thrifty with center pivot irrigation. They use LEPA systems that water every other row with drag hoses.

He pre-waters with about 2 inches to improve germination. He prefers wetting the soil early to sprinkling the crop up after planting.

“We did not pre-water as much this year as we usually do,” Davis said. “High energy prices made it expensive. We pre-watered enough to qualify for the minimum fee on electricity use.”

In-season, they typically apply water four times. “The last two summers we've had timely rains,” Davis said. “That helped a lot with irrigation expenses. In years past, we often turned on the systems and kept them going. We had to.”

Furrow dikes also play an important role in moisture management. “They keep water in place,” Davis said.

They do not make significant cuts in production budgets. “We will not cut back on fertility, especially under irrigation. Good yields the last two years took a lot out of the soil so we have to add fertilizer. But we will not add more than usual.”

Cotton under pivot irrigation typically gets from 80 pounds to 100 pounds of nitrogen, depending on water availability. “We run some nitrogen through the drip tape and add liquid nitrogen through the pivots. We put about half down pre-plant and the rest through irrigation. If we get hailed out, we don't have everything invested up front.”

They usually add 20 pounds to 40 pounds of phosphorus and “a complete fertilizer pre-plant.”

They have not switched to a minimum tillage system but are cutting back on trips over the fields. They sow rye in every other middle under the pivots to keep soil from blowing. “Also, rye helps some with wilt problems.”

Davis and his partners have moved much of their acreage away from stripper varieties to picker types. “We had 30 percent to 40 percent of our production in picker varieties last year,” Davis said. “We may plant 90 percent pickers this year.”

He said the looser bolls in picker-type cotton make it more vulnerable to fall storms. “We try to get it out as soon as we can. Leaving it in the field does it no good once it's ready. We like to kill it Sept. 1 if it's mature.”

Davis said the advantage with pickers comes from increased yield, about 100 pounds per acre more, and improved quality, a three cents to five cents per pound increase in loan value.

“Stripper cotton is more storm proof. It's tighter in the boll but produces less yield and lower grades, on average.”

He usually plants Deltapine 2266 and 2280 stripper types. “These are early maturing varieties. I think there's a place for these, especially with drip. I book some stripper cotton in case we get acreage hailed out,” Davis said. He lost 1,000 acres of irrigated cotton to hail last year.

He'll plant mostly picker type cotton, including Deltapine 444 and 434 and FiberMax 958.

“We averaged 900 pounds per acre last year, irrigated and dryland. Drip made 1,780 pounds, almost 4 bales per acre. Pivots made from 2.5 bales to 3 bales per acre. Dryland made from 650 pounds to 800 pounds per acre, depending on where the rain fell.”

Davis said better varieties helped produce better yields the past few years, as has boll weevil eradication. “Weevils had begun to be trouble east of Crosbyton,” he said. “Eradication helped.”

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