When Mike Grigg installed subsurface drip irrigation eight years ago he thought he knew a little bit about growing cotton on the Texas Plains.
“I went back to school on cotton farming,” Grigg says. He knew from years of dryland production and lessons from his father that water and fertilizer play key roles in good cotton yields.
“But I found that there is a lot more to growing cotton than water and nitrogen,” he says. “The ratio of nitrogen to phosphorus and potassium, zinc, magnesium and the water pH also makes a difference. It's all important.”
Before irrigation, currently on 400 acres of a 2,400-acre cotton farm near Lamesa, a bale of cotton per acre represented a good yield.
“Now, we consistently make three bales on drip irrigation and we're disappointed if we don't get three-and-a-half. If we don't make that, it's a weather problem of some kind, because we know it's not water or fertility.”
Grigg made the best crop ever last year. “And that beat the 2004 crop, which was the best I'd ever made at the time,” he says.
He averaged a ton per acre on one block of drip-irrigated cotton. The year could have been even better. He had 300 acres of drip irrigation hailed out.
“We lost it on the first of June and had to start over. We still made two-and-a-half bales per acre on the late cotton.”
He figures the hail cost him about $100,000, based on what the rest of his drip irrigation yielded. “Without that hail storm we would have averaged 4 bales per acre on irrigated land,” he says.
He recalls his father telling him how to grow cotton: “Plant when it's wet; keep it clean; harvest what's there.”Pretty good advice, Grigg concedes, but folks back then had no idea that cotton was capable for making a ton per acre.
“Time is our limiting factor with drip irrigation,” he says. “I believe we can make 4 bales, 5 bales, maybe even 6 bales. Not all that long ago we thought 4 bales was unattainable.”
Balancing fertilizer demand, especially with subsurface drip systems, vies with water management as a prime management issue for high yields.
“We use soil tests, petiole and stem analyses and a consultant to determine the right fertility balance,” he says.
He relies on the Netafim (drip irrigation equipment supplier) representative for much of his crop nutrient information. “He helps establish fertilizer rates,” Grigg says.
He also helps with Pix recommendations. Grigg applied from 30 ounces to 35 ounces of Pix last year. “We could have done a better job,” he says. “At times, it was too wet to get in with the spray coupe.”
He's changed tillage practices on irrigated acreage. “We're no-till on drip,” he says. “We just run the planter.” He cuts previous year's cotton stalks about knee high and plants between the old rows.
He uses Staple with Roundup to catch weeds that emerge after planting. “I try to run a hooded sprayer through before the canopy covers. But if weed pressure is not there, I may not use it.”
He relies on Roundup Ready varieties and uses no yellow herbicides. He has used a hoe. “I may take one laborer and hoe some cotton,” he says. “Charles Stichler (Texas Extension agronomist at Uvalde) says the most important thing a farmer can apply to cotton is his own shadow. Hoeing makes me do that. I walk the rows and see things I don't see from a pick-up. I get a feel for what's happening in the field.”
He says what he observes “is part science and part feel for growing cotton.” Grigg plants mostly FiberMax varieties but says he may use others this year to get a little more Roundup Ready Flex in production. He's looking at some Stoneville and UAP varieties.
All his dryland production and at least half his irrigated acreage will be in FiberMax, primarily FM960. He liked the stacked gene variety last year. “I'll use it again this year on irrigated acreage.” He likes the picker-type varieties.
And he'll pick the high yield cotton instead of stripping it. “I tried to strip for three or four years but I used a picker the last two. I don't plan to run a stripper through 3 and 4-bale cotton again. A picker does a better job and it's quicker.”
Grigg uses what he learns about growing cotton with drip irrigation on dryland acreage. “I've switched to minimum till on dryland cotton,” he says. “I plant between last year's stalks with Roundup Ready varieties, spray one time and I'm done except for harvest. I may run a four-wheeler through and spot spray to knock out bigger weeds.”
One of his main concerns with minimum till cotton is blowing sand. “Sometimes we need to plow the land to keep it clodded. The standing stalks help (hold the soil).”
Mike's wife Lynne says the minimum till system saves moisture. “We lose less moisture to wind.”
She says Mike has always been a “forward thinker. He put up terraces early on,” she says. “A lot of other farmers watched to see how it would work.”
Grigg says Lynn is an equal partner. She keeps the books, runs the spray coupe and will direct a new business this year doing custom spray work. “And she's the computer expert,” he says. They've divided dryland and irrigated into separate operations, primarily for insurance purposes. The dryland average production pulls down coverage levels for irrigated cotton. They have two concerns going into the 2006 crop year: water and expense. The area remains dry, even after several timely spring rains.
“We're dry but we're in decent shape for moisture. We have some deep moisture and if we get timely rains we'll be OK,” he says.
He likes to plant irrigated acreage in late April or early May. “We can use the drip system to perk water up to the surface and germinate seed,” he says.
Costs may not be as easy to manage. “The first year we used drip irrigation we averaged 3-bales per acre over 50 acres,” Grigg says. “I was amazed. Expense for that crop was about one-third the yield. Now, we're paying half our yield or more to expenses. Electricity, diesel fuel, fertilizer and seed are all high. When energy goes up so does just about everything else we have to have.”
Grigg says in the last 18 months diesel fuel price has doubled. “That affects other materials. They go up. Cotton has not.”
Still, he sees little reason to make wholesale changes in his production system. It's hard to argue with a ton per acre. “The only thing I'd do differently for 2006,” he says, “is stay away from hail storms.”