Steve Patman figures a lot of the fertilizer he put down last year for his Ellis County, Texas, cotton crop remains pretty much where he put it. A summer-long drought prevented stalks from taking up much nitrogen.

So fertility might be one area Patman can cut a bit as he plans the 2007 crop. But he's cautious about wholesale production cuts.

“We can do enough to make a good crop and still save some money,” Patman says.

“We'll probably cut back some on nitrogen. We put out a lot in 2006. We need to save some money somewhere.”

But it's not a given. “We may see what the season brings and adjust accordingly. If we get the right kind of weather we may adjust fertility rates again.”

It also depends on rainfall and the field. Patman farms some bottomland with high yield potential. “At times we may put out more fertilizer on these fields than we need, but we can make close to 3 bales per acre if we get rain. Some other fields will average from one-and-a-half to 2 bales.”

“We've done a lot of experiments on our own over the years with different kinds of fertilizers and different ways to apply them.”

He says the bottomland has some sand in the typically blackland soil. “A little sand is better to let the roots go down.”

He's thinking about cutting back on cottonseed treatments. Ordinarily he uses seed treated with Orthene, Kodiak, Zinc P, PGR IV, Allegiance and Protégé. The combination comes to nearly $40 per acre, Patman says. “And we still have technology fees, but I will not go back to conventional cotton varieties.”

“Technology adoption is one reason for the Patmans' (Steve and his father) success,” says Ellis County Extension entomologist Glen Moore.

Patman says cutting back will be a hard call because of the benefits he gets from the treatments. “Kodiak, Protégé and Allegiance protect cotton from seedling diseases. In 2006 we didn't really need it. But if we get a spring that's wet and cold, we can get hurt, especially in the bottoms.

“Spend the money or not? It seems like a lot but it may pay off.”

He follows one practice that may be different from most farmers. “I'll plant only one cotton variety if it's a good one,” he says. “Two years ago, I tried five different varieties and DPL 444 was better than anything else. It strips well and gin turnout is good. A lot more than just production goes into a cotton variety selection. If a variety gins easy, it could mean another $2 a bale.”

He planted only 444 in 2006 but may stray from that a bit in 2007 to add some Roundup Ready Flex cotton into the mix. “I might plant a little DPL 143 Flex,” he says. “I want to try it. It looked pretty good in 2006 and grades were good. I just want to see how it does.”

He's thought about cutting back on cotton acreage but that decision could depend on winter rainfall.

He's thought about milo but is not convinced he can make much money, even though markets this fall are good. “I'll plant corn if we get rain.”

Typically, they plant about 3,800 acres of cotton, 1,100 acres of corn and 1,200 acres of wheat for grain. They planted another 500 acres of wheat this fall for grazing.

“We usually try to split cotton and corn acreage. We planted more wheat this year because I hedged some at $5 a bushel. It's a fairly low maintenance crop. This year we caught our own seed and we are using no seed treatments on it so we have a low investment.”

He says wheat looks good early on. “We started planting wheat for grazing and just kept going,” he says. “We got one 2-inch rain (just after seeding) and another inch a week later. We need another 3 or 4 inches and then cold weather. We'll watch for armyworms and greenbugs.”

“We have a big investment that goes into cotton and corn up front,” he says.

He got by with a little less investment than usual on cotton in 2006. “We usually use Roundup four times — burndown, over-the-top at the six-to-eight leaf stage and then two trips with hooded sprayers. We have to keep morningglories in check. But this year we sprayed over-the-top but did not use the hooded sprayers except in the bottoms where we got some rain.”

Production costs for corn begin with seed, $129 or more per bag. “We plant about 4 acres with a bag of seed,” he says,” so we have a lot of money tied up early and we have nothing to protect against aflatoxin.”

Patman says even with good fall rains the soil profile remains dry following nearly two years of drought. “We were digging post holes on one farm and at about a foot down found wet soil. Beyond that, at 15 inches and deeper, it was powder dry. We have no deep moisture.

“I will not plant corn next spring if we don't get more rain.”

Patman credits Moore and Extension IPM programs for helping Blacklands farmers manage production costs.

“We've learned to watch pest thresholds and spray borders and) hot spots). If we didn't know better we'd still be spraying whole fields.”