Ovi Atkinson says putting variety trials on his farm is a win-win situation for cottonseed companies and for himself.

The way he figures it, the companies get to see new or standard varieties side-by-side with their competition. And so does he.

“I'm trying to find a variety that makes the best yield on my farm,” he says. “With large test plots, I can find the best fit.”

He makes fields available each year for major seed companies to test “their top varieties. I've improved yield from the information I get from variety trials,” he says.

Atkinson farms in south Texas, near Harlingen, and considers both yield potential and fiber quality as variety selection criteria.

“We don't get a premium for producing better quality cotton,” he says, “but we get docked if we don't. Quality is one way we make money from cotton.”

So far, he's liked Stoneville and FiberMax varieties.

“Most of my acreage has been in FM 989,” he says. “I like it because of the fiber quality.”

Likes big plots

Atkinson works with his county Extension agent to put the plots in. “I like big plots that indicate how varieties perform under my conditions,” he says. “When I find a variety I like, I'll stick with it. I hope to find something equal to or better than the old Stoneville 825.

He watches plots all season, harvests and checks grades. “That's when I decide what I'll plant next year,” he says.

He says even with heavy rains at the end of the season last year quality held up fairly well.

“We had a lot of plant growth late, but we used a defoliant to open up the canopy and knocked off the top of the plant.”

Best yield from the 2003 trials was a FiberMax okra leaf variety, FM 832. He made two bales per acre from 832 and other test plots varieties made less than a bale. Atkinson says the reduced leaf area may have contributed to the yield. “The okra leaf produced a more open canopy,” he says, “so we had more light penetration and I think less boll rot.”

He says boll rot was a problem because of heavy rains late in the season.

He planted three varieties this year, FiberMax 989, FiberMax 800, another okra leaf selection, and Stoneville 4892.

He liked the prospects for 4892 last year but early storms, including high winds and blowing sand, took most of it out. “I want to see how it does under better conditions,” he says.

Traits vs. cost

He's interested in varieties with new technology traits but wonders about the expense. “I think the technology is good but some conventional varieties are just as good and they are cheaper. We don't have a lot of worm pressure in this area so the Bollgard varieties may not be a good fit.

“I planted Roundup Ready cotton last year and discovered that I have to get used to it.”

He did not apply a pre-emergence herbicide and says weather delays prevented timely Roundup application in some fields. “So we still had some weeds. I used a hooded sprayer but we had a lot of rain last year, so I still had to deal with weeds. Since we didn't have a pre-emergence herbicide down, we got caught.”

He planted Roundup Ready varieties on all 2000 acres of cotton this year. “But I also applied Treflan. It doesn't cost that much.”

He says spending a little money up front for Treflan makes sense considering the dockage he can get with “dirty” cotton. “I'm convinced that it pays to use a pre-emergence herbicide.”

He followed the pre-emergence treatment with Roundup.

He irrigated about 500 acres last year. “Irrigated acreage averaged 100 percent or better compared to dryland acreage,” he says.

He's irrigating all but 958 acres this year. “So far the dryland cotton looks better, but it's the oldest cotton. We had to replant all the irrigated acreage. After we planted, we got some heavy rains that hurt the stand.”

He says by late April he had cotton as high as 12 inches and as short as four inches.

Irrigation hopes

“We need some open weather to get the crop going.”

He's more optimistic about irrigation for 2004. Those heavy fall rains, followed by more throughout the winter and early spring, put plenty of moisture into the soil profile and also brought the Amistad and Falcon reservoirs up from severe shortage levels.

“We have plenty of water in the lakes and it's been raining consistently.”

Last year, Lower Rio Grande Valley farmers were limited to only one-half an acre-foot of water for irrigation. That likely will be one-and-one-half for 2004.

Atkinson says the crop is up and growing. “We have ample moisture, so it's up to us to take care of it now. We'll do every thing we can to make a good crop.”

e-mail: rsmith@primediabusiness.com