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Anderson County, Texas, farmer John McFarlane made better than two bales of cotton per acre, dryland, and with no rain from the end of May until September.
"More cotton on Fewer Acres," was the theme for a 1924 cotton yield contest.
A table showing yield averages from 1921 through 1924 proved the need to take action. Average yield in 1921 was 98 pounds per acre—from more than 10 million acres. In 1922, average yield was 130 pounds from more than 11 million acres. In 1923, Texas farmers planted more than 14 million acres in cotton and averaged 146 pounds per acre. And in 1924, farmers made 141 pounds per acre on more than 16.5 million acres.
Reasons for the yield decline included dependence on a monoculture of cotton that depleted soils. According to the brochure: “… it has been the history of all countries whose agriculture is devoted largely to a one-crop system, such as cotton, to reach a condition where farming practices must be changed to re-establish a balance and enable crop production to be profitable. Where this has not been done the result is disaster.”
The contest and a proposed four-year program to identify and incorporate better management practices for cotton production also sought to make Texas farms more self-reliant. By increasing per acre yield, organizers said, farmers could divert more acreage to livestock, grains, fruits, and vegetables. The ultimate goal was to use cotton as the cash crop and let other acreage provide for the family’s needs instead of using cotton profits to purchase milk, eggs, and other necessities.
Organizers also realized that production practices for a state as large as Texas could not be uniform and that “practices which are adapted to East Texas conditions are not applicable to any great extent to the black prairie land region of North and Central Texas, which is considered the most important cotton-growing section of Texas and which, in the opinion of many students of cotton, is held to have suffered seriously from soil depletion through continued one-cropping.”
The program sought to collect information from the cotton growers who entered the contest. “Each entrant in the Cotton Contest agrees to keep a Crop Record throughout the season in which he will record every operation performed on his five acres (the required acreage) of cotton as well as on the rest of his land planted to cotton.”
The assumption was that with better management farmers could raise as much cotton on five acres as they previously did on 10 or more, leaving land available for other crops and increased self-sufficiency.
It’s also interesting to note the practices employed by the winning farmer, some of which are long outdated, but some that remain viable options today.
The pamphlet showed that McFarlane picked good land for his contest plot, five acres of sandy loam bottom. His cotton followed a ribbon cane crop from the previous year.
He “flat-broke” the land with a breaking plow, “requiring fifty hours of a man and a team.” More cultivation followed, including: a section harrow and bedding with a “middle buster.” He applied 400 pounds of a 10-3-3 commercial fertilizer “in the water furrows, mixed and bedded back with a breaking plow, requiring two days.”
He planted one bushel of seed per acre behind a “walking planter.” Seed cost was $2 a bushel. Spacing was four feet between rows.
He started cultivating with a “Georgia stock” and sixteen-inch sweep—15 hours. He devoted 15 hours to chopping cotton to “a stand of one, two, three and four stalks to a hill and distance between hills twelve to sixteen inches. Fifty hours were devoted to chopping.”
He cultivated with various sweeps a total of ten times during the season, along with two hoeings, and a total of 361 man hours—“seventy-two hours per acre.”
That’s for five acres of cotton. Herbicides have made that chore significantly easier.