That’s the only way to justify any investment, acreage adjustment or farm program decision, according to Lubbock County, Texas, cotton farmer David Jones.

Take his irrigation systems, for instance. He runs mostly center pivot units, fitted with low energy precision application (LEPA) systems. “I have three or four older systems with conventional spray nozzles,” he said, “but I’m changing those as I can. Most units use drag hoses to put water where it’s needed.”

LEPA lines are spaced 80 inches apart, every other row.

Jones says energy costs may inspire more than a few nightmares for farmers this season. “Fuel costs will add significantly to production expenses,” he says. “Now, diesel is running $1.38 to $1.40 a gallon. This time last year, we were paying from $.89 to $.95 a gallon. That’s a big difference.”

He says for the past three years his energy bill for one month has been more than it cost him to farm for the entire year in 1985. “That’s a scary proposition.”

But he sees little he can do to adjust irrigation without sacrificing yield potential.

“The way we’re set up, we’re committed to irrigate cotton in 2003,” he said. He says cutting back on irrigation is a false economy if lower yield eats up whatever savings he’d get with less irrigation.

“I might be a little more aggressive with production in 2003,” he said. “We had a pretty good year last year and the farm bill will help out, so we can do a few things we might not have done otherwise.”

He may catch a break early. “We’re fortunate that we have pretty good moisture in the soil profile, so we may get by without much pre-watering to get the crop up,” he says. “We could still use more rain before planting time. In fact, it’s been dry in this area for quite some time. To the East of Lubbock, folks have had rain. But we always seem to get a shower or two in April, May and June. A good planting rain will help everybody, but we’re in pretty good shape.”

One of his more aggressive decisions will be to add 160 acres of drip irrigation this year. “It’s been measured, plotted and we’re committed to it,” he says.

Jones believes drip will be a key to increasing irrigation efficiency. “But I am concerned about the expense. This system will cost more than the farm when I bought it. But I farm for the long-term, not just for the next crop. I’m also trying to make the farm as productive as possible for my children and grandchildren.”

He tested drip last year on 15 acres. “I made more than 1,600 pounds of cotton per acre on that field,” he said. “It was the best cotton I had.”

And he’s convinced he can do better. “I got the system in a little late and I did not get as uniform a stand as I like. Plant growth was inconsistent.”

Jones said the drip field illustrates the need to push a sharp pencil through the numbers before committing to the investment.

“That field makes good cotton under LEPA,” he says. “It’s one of my most productive fields and I can make 1,000 pounds per acre without drip irrigation. So, I have to look at 1,000 pounds compared to 1,600 pounds, plus the added expense. It’s a toss up, a marginal call.”

But he’s convinced that 1,600 pounds per acre will not be the peak. “If I consider 1,000 pounds compared to 1,800 or 2,000 pounds, the decision is easier. Or compare 750 pounds to 1,600.”

Jones said the point is to evaluate every field, look at production records, consider yield potential with and without drip irrigation and then figure in the added expense. “Do the math,” he said.

He’s performed a little arithmetic on tillage systems as well and uses reduced tillage on most acreage. “I grow a cover crop under my pivots, mainly because I don’t want to run a sand fighter in the spring. I can’t get to all my cotton acreage with sand fighters anyway.”

He plants wheat under the pivots and terminates it before planting cotton. He plants some Roundup Ready cotton and can take care of most weed problems in season with Roundup over the top. On conventional varieties he uses a hooded sprayer.

He hasn’t completely retired his cultivator but keeps it in the barn a lot more than he used to. “I cultivate cotton under pivots one time with a 20-inch sweep, running just under the dead wheat. I used to cultivate three or four times a season. Every time it rained, I’d have to cultivate.”

Jones says his mindset about weeds has changed. “I like for it to look pretty,” he says, “but we’re farming in an era when we just might let a weed or two go.”

He says the reduced tillage system saves a lot of time, with sand fighting and cultivation, but he saves in other areas as well. “I’ll save a lot of expensive fuel this year,” he says. “With conventional tillage, I probably would burn 100 gallons of fuel a day. With this system, I burn maybe 30 gallons. That saves a lot of money.”

Jones uses a disk lister to list acreage under pivots, where he has good moisture, and plants wheat. He runs a stalk cutter and applies Treflan.

“Then I hope for a rain and plant. If it comes up, good. If it’s slow to germinate, I’ll turn the pivots on.”

He’s put the by-the-numbers principle to work on farm program signup as well. He says good records make a big difference when farmers are deciding on acreage and yield bases.

“It’s sometimes a close judgment call on whether it’s better to improve yields or adjust base acreage,” he says. “On some farms, it’s definitely an advantage to improve yields; on others, it’s questionable.”

Jones said farmers must look at program benefits on a farm-by-farm basis. “We have to look hard at the numbers,” he says.

Jones says any investment, production change or program decision has to do more than maintain status quo.

“If it doesn’t improve profit potential, what’s the use?” he says.

e-mail: flaws@primediabusiness.com