Despite declining commodity prices, no appreciable rain since September and fertilizer prices too high to justify more than maintenance levels, Bob Fuchs remains excited about farming.
Fuchs raises cotton, wheat and grain sorghum on a 2,000-acre farm near Olfen, Texas, a short drive out of San Angelo. He’s farming land that’s been in his family for more than 100 years.
He says agriculture leaders and educators over the years (he can name a half-dozen or more) provided and updated production information that “gave me the confidence to make decisions.”
And changes. He’s converted acreage from conventional-tillage to a reduced-till system over the past 10 years. He’s added technology, including a mechanical guidance system and transgenic varieties. He rotates grain and cotton and he keeps a close watch on production costs and commodity prices.
He started easing into reduced tillage about 10 years ago. “Cutting back on tillage saved a lot of money,” Fuchs says. But that’s not the only reason he got away from conventional tillage.
“I used to run a moldboard plow on 30 percent of our acres every year. I used field cultivators then pulled up beds and cultivated three or four times. I was on a tractor seat about all the time.”
Now, he plows a little every other year and about once every four years runs a deeper tillage tool he’s adapted to keep the top level of the soil near the surface. He says nutrients stay in the top and he likes to keep that available early on for crop needs.
“I spend more on chemicals with reduced tillage,” Fuchs says. “But I save soil and water. I have a lot of residue in my soil and that helps hold moisture.”
He says he loses some “free” nutrients by not tilling the soil and burying residue. “But I save moisture. I can buy nutrients, but I can’t buy moisture. On a dryland farm, moisture is the limiting factor every year.”
Reduced tillage is also “better for the environment. I have less wear on equipment, and use less labor too.”
He follows the same rows each year. “I laid off rows with the guidance system. I till and spray down the same rows.”
He plants in old crop stubble, usually cotton behind grain sorghum and sorghum in cotton stalks. Stubble plays a big role in Fuchs’ management scheme. He went an extra mile or two in 2006 to keep cover on the soil.
A cotton field failed, so he broadcast 50 pounds of grain sorghum seed per acre across the field. He tilled the soil enough to assure soil-seed contact and threw up beds. That cover kept soil from blowing until he could get another crop in. It also prevented weed infestations.
“I let the grain sorghum get about knee high and then terminated it with Roundup. I planted grain sorghum the next spring and followed with cotton last year.”
He added no fertilizer and still made 902 pounds of lint per acre on a FiberMax variety. “That was a homerun in the bottom of the ninth,” he says.
Keeping a cover crop and old-crop residue on the land is important. “We can’t afford to lose topsoil in this area,” he says. “Even cotton stalks, thin as they are, do a lot to hold soil.”
He says he gets nutrient value from residue, too. He refers to worm castings in reduced-till fields as “free nutrients. Worm holes are the moldboard plow that allows moisture to penetrate to the roots.”
Fuchs says he read a lot about reduced tillage systems before he tried it and his experience proves out what he read. “A farmer may come to no conclusion about no-till advantages for several years. After about six years, you begin to see the benefits,” he says.
Easing into no-till gave him time to adjust and also kept a plan B in effect. “But I appreciate the farmers who went completely no-till from the start. I learned from them.”
He says he has to be frugal with fertility. Keeping residue on the soil provides “a bank of nutrients we can pull out. We took a lot out of the bank last year and we always try to replenish what the crop removes.”
But this year he’s taking a wait-and-see approach. He has no fertilizer under wheat he planted because only a little of it ever germinated. He’ll see if rain comes soon enough to save any of it before he decides on fertility. He fears he’ll “zero out,” most of the wheat. “It looks bad. I got no grazing on early-planted wheat and sold all my cattle. The last rain we had was Sept. 20.”
He takes soil samples every third year and is considering going a little deeper to gauge availability of nutrients as deep as 24 inches. “We now know that cotton roots will go deeper and spread wider than we used to think. Deep nutrients could be another part of the bank.”
This year he plans to “hold off with fertilizer applications until I see what the weather is going to do. I can’t justify big inputs. Fertilizer prices are still too high compared to natural gas. If it comes down another $100 a ton, I’ll lean toward adding more.”
He’s also looking at specific field needs and has found that adding fertilizer to lighter soils pays more than on better land. “We need to find out how far we can push and still get a benefit,” he says.
He may shake up rotation a bit this year, too. He typically plants more than 1,000 acres in cotton. “I’ll probably drop below 1,000 this year. I can’t make it on 50 cent cotton.”
He usually follows a rotation plan of two years in cotton and one in grain. He may reverse that on some acreage.
But he’s also considering cutting back on grain sorghum. “Bins and elevators in the area are full of grain sorghum,” he says.
He planted “more wheat than usual” last fall hoping to take advantage of favorable wheat prices. “Wheat has been holding up better than other commodity prices. I got a good price for my grain sorghum last year, but may not plant any in 2009. Price will determine if I’ll plant any or not.”
He’ll wait until mid-March to decide whether he’ll keep any of his wheat or not. He says he could plant grain sorghum or cotton on abandoned wheat acreage, but is leaning toward fallowing it over the summer and spraying to keep weeds down.
He pays a lot of attention to weed control. He uses all Roundup Ready cotton varieties but says winter weed control is still important. “We can’t let weeds get big. A weed 1 foot tall will take a lot of moisture out of the soil. I may spray three times to kill winter weeds. If henbit, mustard and others get tall, they are hard to kill.”
He always applies a burndown herbicide before planting.
He still uses a hooded sprayer at times for weed control, but uses it less since he started planting Roundup Ready Flex varieties. He says the hooded sprayer is a big advantage, but Flex varieties help him spread out labor needs.
“When you work a farm by yourself, it doesn’t pay to put all your eggs in one basket."
He follows the same logic with cotton varieties and plants several different maturity selections to spread labor and production risks. He said FiberMax performed well last year and he’s looking at a new Phytogen variety for some acreage in 2009.
“Phytogen 375 seems to have a place in this area,” he says. “We had to plant late last year and we sometimes need a variety that will adapt. Some varieties we’ve tried looked very good until they were stressed and then they shut down.”
He thinks he can plant Phytogen 375 as late as June 5 and still make a good crop because “it’s adaptable. I’d like to see a test plot in this area to see how it performs,” he says.
He also says pounds remain his main objective. “The focus in recent years has been on a high quality product. But I’ve made excellent quality cotton before and sold it for 61 cents. I made average quality cotton, with higher yields and got 60.5 cents. That was a better value.”
Most of his acreage will be in stacked gene cotton, too. He says with lower seeding rates the little extra cost for the Bt gene is barely noticeable. “It just seems smart to add it.”
Whatever he plants, he’ll cut back on seeding rate. “I’m down to 5 pounds per acre,” he says. That’s on an 8 to 1 skip pattern. “I leave about 5 inches to 6 inches between seed. I can make 2 bales per acre with that seeding rate.”
He says with the cost of seed and current varieties’ ability to produce, the lower seeding rate is easy to justify. A MaxEmerge planter also helps with stand uniformity, he says.
Fuchs is looking for ways to reduce production costs as he plans the 2009 crop. He’s delaying some decisions, such as fertility, until he determines if weather will be favorable at planting time.
But he’s still looking forward to trying out some new cotton varieties, honing his reduced tilling system and getting his new cotton stripper into the field next fall.
Despite the sometimes gloomy outlook, he is excited about the opportunity to farm. He operates as frugally as possible, just he and his wife Puggy as labor force. And he’s proud of the farm heritage he carries on.
“My grandfather bought this farm in 1906 and moved the family here in early 1907.” He jokes about living in the “new” house, the one built in 1938, where he’s lived all his life. “I’ve been here 53 years,” he says.
The farm started with 250 acres, primarily a cattle operation. “They raised grain for the cattle (about 20 head) and horses. They raised cotton for cash and also milked cows, raised chickens and sold eggs.”
Fuchs says his grandfather died when his father was just 19. “He farmed on his own for years.”
So doing it on his own is nothing new to Bob Fuchs. He’s simply carrying on a tradition.