Technology is helping Hockley County, Texas, farmer Steve Newsom make more bales of cotton on fewer acres of land.

“Technology gets a little better every year,” Newsom said recently at a production seminar sponsored by Bayer CropScience in Lubbock.

“We had six good years in a row and we figured it wouldn’t happen again, but it looks like we’re making another good, high quality cotton crop.”

He’s making it more efficiently, too. “I’ve decreased acreage and increased the total number of bales. I’m more selective about the land I plant.”

He said in mid-September that the crop needed a few more heat units to fill out, but good weather into early October would help push the crop. “There’s certainly no need for alarm.”

He’s using subsurface drip irrigation on much of his acreage to improve moisture management efficiency. “I need one gallon of water per acre to make one bale of cotton. If I try to get 4 bales, I need 3 gallons an acre on subsurface drip systems. We need more water with pivots because of evaporation. Even LEPA pivots lose some water to evaporation.”

He’s using grain sorghum in rotation with drip irrigation on part of a field with cotton to stretch water use. “I can water grain sorghum early, and cotton peak moisture demand begins as grain sorghum finishes. We manage these fields to capitalize on rotation and help out with limited water.

“Let’s take for example a 100-acre field with 300 gallons per minute total water (3 gallons per acre) and a historic ceiling of 3 bales. We take 25 acres and plant irrigated grain sorghum as early in April as possible. This is a month ahead of cotton. If conditions at the end of March are favorable we plant then. We’ll plant the 75 acres of cotton in late April to early May and manage the two similarly through June and most of July.

“As the early grain finishes in late July, cotton is reaching its peak water demand during boll set. We then focus all of the 300 gallons of water on 75 acres making it 4 gallons per minute during the time cotton needs water the most. The end result is more bales on fewer acres, a good yield on grain and also improved yields on cotton as a result of rotation.

“It really takes about four years to see the full benefit of this program. We don’t fully capitalize on improved water management alone until the land has been rotated. The 25 acres that had grain the year before will out-yield the rest of the cotton when we first begin this program. Once the field has been rotated around once, we see the entire field begin to have 4-bale potential. This gives us the same number of bales or more on 75 acres than we were getting on 100, plus we get the added income from grain.”

“Rotation helps. I can see a big increase in cotton yield after a grain crop. I also rotate with wheat on center pivots and the cotton behind wheat looks better than behind grain sorghum in some fields. Wheat helps with disease and nematode problems in cotton because there is no host plant during the summer months for nematodes and diseases to survive on if you keep the wheat field clean using glyphosate or another burndown. Removing hosts for an extended length of time is the best way we’ve found to improve growing conditions in fields with severe nematode/disease issues. Also, just giving that land a rest for a summer seems to have benefits in and of itself.”

He uses seed technology, too, but even with herbicide resistant varieties he likes to apply a pre-emergence herbicide. “I still use a yellow herbicide to prevent herbicide resistant weeds. I also rotate away from nematodes. I have not seen any Reniform nematodes in my fields, but some growers on the high plains have seen them. I am excited about nematode resistance research.”

Newsom said his 2008 crop got off to a rocky start. “We farm about 3,000 acres and usually have 1,500 to 2,000 in cotton. We lost one-third of our cotton in June and planted back to grain sorghum.”

He said his 2008 cotton crop overcame a late start. “We lost some cotton planted minimum till into wheat stubble. That’s the first time we’ve lost cotton in wheat.”

He said July weather was “about as good as June was bad. August also was good.”

He said farm production likely will be shy of the typical 5,000- to 6,000-bale production. He’s gotten used to high yields. “Growing up on the High Plains we thought making 2 bales per acre on irrigated land was a home run. Today, on drip anyway, 2 bales is a failure.”

Increased yields, he said, comes from better management and better technology. “High Plains cotton farmers are extremely interested in improving management practices. Farmers here are more open to technology than most anywhere in the world. I’m excited about the choices we have. I am concerned about technology fees going up but we have more variety options and I’m pleased about that.”

He said West Texas has come a long way in improving cotton quality in the last decade.

Improved fiber quality from FiberMax was the catalyst that started the transition, he said. He’s growing Certified FiberMax cotton. “We’ve seen only the tip of the iceberg from the benefits ahead for the Certified FiberMax program.”

Newsom said the Texas High Plains will hang onto cotton. “We may see reduced acreage but we will not abandon cotton,” he said. “This is an excellent place to grow cotton. We can make a good dryland crop here consistently and that should ensure that cotton is going to be the main crop on the High Plains. We have other advantages; we don’t get fall hurricanes. We do have to address the Ogallala aquifer issue, and we are, but cotton will keep us here for the long haul.

“Texas now produces more than half the cotton grown in the United States,” Newsom said. “We’re excited about that and we’re up to the challenge.”

email: rsmith@farmpress.com