Texas farmer looks for higher profits WAYNE WATERS says more than the agricultural economy has been depressed for the past three years. Low prices and weather problems have dampened farmers' spirits as well.

"Low prices the last three or four years took a lot out of farmers," he says. "I've seen some good ones go out of business. It is depressing to see someone do the best he can and still not make a profit."

Waters, a Wharton County, Texas, corn and cotton farmer, has weathered the storm so far, but he's convinced he can do more to improve the bottom line.

He's looking at tillage, fertility, water management, and marketing as keys to increase efficiency on the 1,170 acres he farms with his brother-in-law Chris Wendel.

He admits to using a bit more fertilizer than necessary occasionally. "I've been guilty of over-fertilizing," he says, "especially with nitrogen on corn. I may try to make top yields, 140 to 150 bushels per acre, when my five-year average is only 118 to 124 bushels.

"Maybe if I fertilize for 120 and get the right combination of weather I can still get 150. I may be able to cut back on nitrogen, reduce expenses and get higher yields."

He'll also use less fertilizer on cotton. "I've been guilty of putting on a little insurance fertilizer in cotton," he says. "I have applied more nitrogen than I needed, but there's always a little doubt about whether I've applied enough," he says.

But he and Texas Extension specialist Danny Fromme both agree that 2001 will be a "teachable moment."

"Fertilizer prices will be higher," Waters says. "I'll put less than 100 units of nitrogen per acre on cotton land. I'll pay more attention to soil tests for cotton and corn."

He's already working with reduced tillage to cut fuel, equipment and labor expenses. "I plant on a stale seedbed to save trips across the field," he says. "I might do a little more conservation tillage in 2001 to reduce expenses."

He says site-specific agriculture may play a role at some point, but the technology remains too expensive for individual farmers. "A local co-op may buy variable rate applicators and do custom work," he says.

Fromme says soils in the area are "pretty homogeneous and fairly uniform."

"I know where the weak spots are from harvest," Waters says.

His rotation program helps with irrigation management. He irrigates some crops with center pivots and some with furrow irrigation. "I plant half a circle in corn and the other half in cotton," he says. "That works well for managing water. I'm close to finished watering corn before the cotton needs irrigation.

"I start irrigating corn early to keep it out of stress. I want to stay ahead of demand on the corn crop and make certain it gets enough. A little drought early on cotton will not hurt and may encourage a deeper taproot. A dry May is often good for cotton."

HE SAYS the pivots are much more efficient than furrow irrigation. "I can apply water when I need it."

Rotation usually follows a corn, cotton, corn pattern. "I may occasionally plant cotton in the same field two years in a row, but I prefer not to," Waters says.

He's also adding soybeans to the mix in 2001. "Soybeans will be good rotation for corn and cotton, but price is the main reason I'll add them. Corn prices are still down and the soybean loan rate is much better. Also, production costs are lower for soybeans."

He says a Group IV variety should do well in the Gulf Coast area. "I'll need few if any insecticide or fungicide sprays and should be ready to harvest in July or August. The only drawback is that soybean harvest will compete with cotton."

He's also looking at his marketing strategies. On-farm storage has been the key to sales for a number of years. He says the gain he made by storing corn paid for the bins he first year he bought them. But he's been burned a time or two as well.

"I store corn every year, but one year I could have sold for a fair price in December, but I decided to hold the grain. I finally sold in March for the same price I could have gotten in December.

"I've sold too often by the seat of my pants. The last few years, corn prices have stayed down into winter. The Midwest has had bumper crops and sent grain into feedlots that usually offered us a good price."

Waters is working with a new marketing club and hopes he'll learn more about market alternatives. "I'd like to learn how to use my storage to my advantage, in combination with hedging and options," he says.

He'd also like to see a better weather year in 2001. "We made a good corn crop. Rains were favorable."

Cotton was not as good. "We didn't make big fluffy bolls and had more seed than lint. Hot weather prevent the bolls from filling out as much as they should have."

He averaged about one and a third bale per acre. "With a little more rain I could have made a bale and a half or a bale and three quarters."

Waters has been flexible since he started farming. "I used to grow a lot of milo, but the corn market is better. I can do better with 70-bushel corn than 5,000 pound per acre grain sorghum."

He also says sorghum doesn't respond to irrigation as well as corn.

He'll try some rootworm-resistant corn next year, hoping that technology will give him another means of controlling pests and reducing costs.

"I've always tried to keep expenses down," he says. "But I never let costs completely rule what I do. I have to maintain flexibility."

He hopes that flexibility with crop rotation, marketing and expenses makes 2001 a little less depressing than the past few years have been.