Jimmy Dodson credits his late father, Giles, with much of his success as a farmer and for his commitment to stewardship of the natural resources he depends on for his living.
“I learned to farm from my dad,” Dodson says. “He taught me a lot about stewardship as a concept, and how stewardship for the land results in leaving it better than I found it. From him I learned to always try to find a better way of doing things.”
Dodson's dedication to soil and water conservation and sound management practices earned him the Southwest Region Farm Press High Cotton Award for 2009.
Dodson's father started farming near Corpus Christi, Texas, in 1937, taking over from his father who moved to Nueces County around 1900 from east Texas. For a time, it didn't look like farming was in the cards for Jimmy.
“I went to Texas A&M in 1971 and thought farming was out of the question,” he says. “The price of land was way up and there were not enough acres on dad's farm for both of us.”
He planned to work on a Masters degree or possibly a PhD in economics and then teach in college or go into banking. “I got married in 1972 and got real serious about school,” he says.
In the fall of 1974 a neighbor farmer decided to sell out and talked with Dodson's father about buying the operation, including equipment and a long-term lease on the land. “Dad said he couldn't do it on his own and wondered if I'd be willing to work as a partner. He was smiling from ear to ear. I canceled my plans to work on a Master's degree and started farming in the spring of 1975.
“It was a good time to farm. Commodity prices were up and I was soon able to buy my father's interest in the partnership and operate on my own. I began to lease more land and grew the business.”
Much of his early success came from the reputation his father had earned over the years. “He gave me a good name,” Dodson says.
He also gave him good advice about protecting his resources. Today, Dodson manages land to preserve moisture, improve the soil and provide a haven for fish and wildlife while making a living from cotton and grain sorghum.
“I've always cared about wildlife,” he says, “and I strive to protect the environment so the next generation of fishermen and hunters can enjoy it. I try to plant wildlife plots every year.”
He says he enjoys wildlife with the exception of wild hogs, which have become one of his worst pests in grain crops.
He's reduced tillage over the years but does not maintain a strict no-till system. “The older I get the more I think there is no absolute one best approach to tillage in every case,” he says. “I'm trying to reduce tillage to limit erosion and we're doing a better job than we were 15 years ago. We're keeping dust from blowing and keeping nutrients where they belong.”
I've probably reduced tillage by half or two-thirds over the last few years. It varies with the field and the rainfall we receive.
“I'm probably more concerned with moisture management than simply reducing tillage but cutting back on trips now is important because of energy costs.”
He says sometimes following dry harvest periods he may do some tillage to open up clay soils packed down by combines, pickers and trucks. “I'm not a no-till purist in any sense,” he says.
When deep tillage is called for, he manages crop residue with a Wilcox machine that breaks the soil about 12 to 15 inches deep with a crumbler to break up clods. The crumbler also incorporates crop stubble into the soil. “This machine saves us a trip,” Dodson says.
A rolling stalk chopper also helps manage crop residue and saves a plowing trip.
Grain and cotton yields in no-till compare with conventionally-tilled fields, but getting a stand can be risky if the preceding harvest was wet or if spring rains don't materialize. “If we do it right, no-till hasn't hurt, but I'm still not convinced it's our best option every year.”
Technology also helps conserve resources. “We use RTK guidance systems on all our units,” he says. “We have no overlap with plowing, spraying or harvest. We use swath control, too, and that saves us money.”
He applies fertilizer in a band about 6 inches away from his row. The RTK puts it where he wants it. “This is much more efficient than broadcast application, and this is more important with higher input costs,” he says.
Eliminating overlap also reduces energy demand and wasted fertilizer and chemicals.
“We can also work at night and can go 24 hours a day if we need to get field work done before a front or a hurricane.”
He says operator fatigue is much less with guidance systems.
“We have no guess work in finding rows and we can run several tractors in a field at the same time without worrying about overlap or getting in each other's way. We're seeing a payoff with this technology.”
Dodson is careful about how he treats fields near residential areas. “We farm a lot on the edge of town so we try to find ways to minimize drift and odor. We want to be good neighbors.”
He sometimes uses border strips to stay further away from residential areas. “We may choose not to plant cotton in certain fields because it's too close to neighbors.”
In some locations he uses a highboy sprayer instead of an airplane to treat fields.
Dodson says the boll weevil eradication program has done much to improve cotton production and the environment in Texas. “I worked hard to help get it started and am now looking to get it finished. We have reduced pesticide applications and reduced production risk quite a lot. Yields have climbed and costs have declined. It's good for us and good for the environment. I used to apply up to 14 cotton insecticide applications a year. Now I get by with two or three and I'm using gentler chemistries compared to what had been required.”
He shreds cotton stalks as soon as possible after harvest and applies 2, 4-D to kill vegetation, usually two applications, to prevent boll weevils from over-wintering, and to conserve moisture.
Seed technology has helped, too.
Dodson plants mostly FiberMax varieties with either Liberty Link or Roundup Ready technology. “I'm concerned about herbicide resistant weeds. I have seen no evidence of resistance, but I rotate grain and cotton and also rotate chemistry. If we're not careful, we'll have resistant weeds. I still use a yellow herbicide, too.”
He quit using his hooded sprayer. “With Liberty Link and Roundup Ready varieties, I don't need it anymore.”
He used Bt cotton on most of his acreage last year and says one-third of the fields “needed it bad. With more stacked gene cotton, we'll use more Bt.”
Last year Dodson planted 60 percent of his acreage in grain sorghum and 40 percent in cotton. “I sometimes plant corn or soybeans, but cotton and sorghum work best most years.”
Acreage for 2009 depends on commodity prices at planting time, but he's contemplating reducing cotton by another 20 percent.
He'll stick with FiberMax varieties, FM835 and FM840. “I prefer to diversify, but keep fiber quality high.”
He says fiber quality has been a big factor in variety selection in south Texas. “We had better quality than we expected in 2008 considering the wet harvest weather we had. Staple was a little shorter than usual; color was 41 and it's usually 31 or 21. Loan value averaged 53 cents a pound.”
That value was okay, he says, but down from the 2006 average of 57 cents.
He's used pickers on 100 percent of his acreage the last few years “as we started to raise more high quality cotton. Higher quality demand from end users encourages picking the crop.”
He irrigates none of his acreage. “We have no good ground water source,” he says. “We usually get 28 inches to 30 inches of rain but it is very erratic. Moisture management is crucial. Typically we have more dry years than wet ones. The last two have been wet during harvest.
“In 2008 we were very dry early. We harvested about 600 pounds after weather cost us 150 pounds off the top. Long-term yields have been over 700 pounds.”
Dodson gives a lot of credit to others involved in his farm operation. He says farm manager Jon Gwynn is an important part of the operation. “If it weren't for Jon, efficiency would suffer, and I couldn't be as involved in the Cotton Council or the Farm Credit Bank of Texas.”
His son Bryan, 26, works with him, and two daughters, Licia Massa and Lori McDonald, “are all involved in the farming business.” His wife, Barbara, contributes time, talent, and organizational skills. “She manages the office, brings meals to the field during busy seasons, and is the glue that keeps the whole thing together.
“We are all partners, and we share the benefits from all the unique talents that each person contributes.”
Dodson says cotton farmers face tough times with low prices and high production costs and their involvement in producer organizations is more important than ever. “Agricultural producers benefit greatly from teamwork with organizations that serve us,” he says. “The Council and its leaders have maximized the influence of the industry, and added benefits that growers and others in the industry often take for granted.
“We have to be more politically involved. This means contributing our time, talent, and treasure — cash. If we don't tend to this aspect of our business, someone else surely will, and the result won't be pleasant.”
In addition to service to the National Cotton Council Dodson is also a director of the Farm Credit Bank of Texas, Gulf Coast Cooperative, and is active in the Real Life Fellowship Church in Corpus Christi.