West Texas cotton farmers likely will maintain or increase acreage this year, but many will adjust production routines to take better advantage of diminishing water supplies and to increase efficiency.
Several summed up the 2009 season and discussed 2010 plans during a Deltapine new variety rollout in Charleston, S.C.
“Cotton acreage will be up and corn acreage will be down this year,” said Ryan Williams, Farwell, Texas. “We’ll probably plant 1,000 more acres of cotton and 1,000 less acres of corn. Cotton looks like a better option than corn.”
Williams, who farms with his father, Mark, also has wheat planted for grazing and grain. The rotation is an important part of the operation. “We rotate to help manage water, which is our No. 1 limiting factor. We graze wheat, cut some for grain and fallow wheat ground in the summer. We strip-till cotton into wheat stubble the next year. We plant very little wheat that we don’t follow with cotton.”
He and Mark have strip-tilled cotton for five or six years. “We like it. We always get a uniform seedbed and every field is the same. We set the planter and we know what the field conditions will be like.
“We also save a lot of trips across the field with strip-till.” They also save water. “With strip-till or minimum-till, if we get a heavy rain the wheat stubble soaks it up like a sponge. Strip-till has changed the way we farm and allows us to farm more acreage. Roundup Flex also has been a big advantage.”
They’re irrigating about as efficiently as they can, too. They considered subsurface drip irrigation but say early May conditions are often too dry to provide adequate moisture to germinate cotton seed. “It’s hard to get the crop up,” Williams said. “And we’re at 4,100 feet elevation so we have to get the crop planted and get it up fast.”
They use low energy precision application (LEPA) irrigation. “With drag hoses, we’re 95 percent to 96 percent efficient and it’s cheaper.”
Efficient water use has become more critical over the last few years. “Just five years ago, we had wells pumping 400 gallons a minute. Now, some of those are at 50 gallons. We still have good water in areas, but the distribution of good water is getting narrower.”
Some areas, he said, may revert to “just cattle water.”
They’re watching weed problems. “Marestail is getting harder to kill. We have to get out early with Dicamba or 2, 4-D. We also use residual herbicides, Treflan or Prowl, maybe Dual, Direx or Diuron.”
They hope cotton markets remain strong into the season and like the option of contracting some cotton at 8 cents above loan value. “That looks like a good option,” Williams said. “Last year our loan value was 53 cents a pound and we hope to see 70 cent cotton in 2010.”
He said another advantage to production efficiency has been adding GPS equipment. “Since we started using GPS we can’t stand to be even 8 inches off,” he said.
Ryan and Mark each have separate operations. “We own our own equipment, but we farm together.”
Steve Chapman, Lorenzo, Texas, will keep cotton acreage about the same in 2010, as will Bret Hogue, who farms near Brownfield, Texas.
“We have a rotation program in place so we are pretty much locked in,” Hogue said.
“We may reduce irrigated acreage,” Chapman said. “Water levels are low.”
“We’ve already reduced irrigated acreage by 50 percent,” Hogue said.
They said bankers and landlords might not always agree, but concentrating water on their best fields makes economic sense.
Hogue plants half cotton and half wheat, but is looking to switch to milo and cotton as a less expensive combination. “It’s less expensive to grow milo than it is to grow wheat,” he said. “And a late freeze always seems to hurt the wheat crop.”
He’s also using a no-till system. “We run over our cotton stubble before we plant wheat.”
Chapman has been using no-till since 2003 and says he’s beginning to see some weed problems, especially marestail. “We’re not using a yellow herbicide, but it wouldn’t help. Marestail is a winter weed. This may be the biggest disadvantage of no-till.”
“We’re also seeing some other problem weeds,” Hogue said. “We may need to do some tillage, perhaps run a chisel plow prior to planting wheat.”
Chapman is considering zone tillage. “We may rip and strip till and then run a minimum till cultivator in the summer. We could take out volunteer cotton, too. But we have to have moisture to plow.”
They hope a new herbicide from BASF, Sharpen, will help control marestail. “It’s worth looking at,” Chapman said.
Chapman puts most of his cotton in a marketing pool.
“There have been some pretty good contracts available,” Hogue said. “I haven’t signed anything yet.”
Chapman said his 2009 crop was “above average, but I spent a lot of money on it, mostly to irrigate. It was dry early and we had to water a lot. And our water is going down.”
He said 114 acres of drip irrigation may not make what he’d like. “It was hailed out and we had to replant. That hurt it.”
“We had a good irrigated crop,” Hogue said. “We may be off about a half bale from what we thought. We had 25 hot days in August that caused some boll shed.”