Technology, including yield monitors, remote sensing and computer-assisted irrigation control, is helping farmers across the Cotton Belt increase yields, reduce expenses and improve efficiency.
A panel of farmers, consultants, Extension specialists and research scientists who shared research data and in-field experiences during the recent Beltwide Cotton Conferences at Anaheim, Calif., agreed that cotton yield monitors are not yet as accurate as those for corn and other grains but, even with a few inconsistencies, still provide valuable information growers can use to improve profitability.
Mississippi farmer Kenneth Hood has installed yield monitors on each of his cotton pickers and says the information he gleans from the instruments helps him increase yields.
Hood uses an Ag Leader monitor and a Trimble 132 computer. "With this technology I can locate every inch of a field," Hood said.
He said an accurate record of crop production activities is an essential part of the program. "Collecting the most accurate information possible allows us to use the yield monitor data to make changes.
"We can evaluate each variety, each production practice and specific areas within a field to determine what works and what does not. We can determine what went wrong in certain areas to lower yield and make corrections or abandon those sites."
Hood says farmers must be precise with field names, yield load names, swath widths, row spacing and other field data.
"Pre-harvest calibration and system setup is essential. We may calibrate for each variety because of different boll characteristics and lint percentage."
Hood says monitors pay for themselves quickly. He estimates that his Ag Leader system will cost approximately $9,800 for top-of-the-line accessories, about $5,700 for a less complete but workable system.
"If I can add just 10 pounds per acre to my yield, on 600 acres, I can pay for the high-end system in three years. With a 50 pound per acre increase, I can pay the system off in about a year."
On 1,200 acres, a 10-pound yield advantage would pay out the first year. With 50 pounds, payoff would be even quicker.
"These monitors pay for themselves," he said. "That's why I have one on every picker I own."
Hood likes the Ag Leader because of accuracy and low maintenance. "I don't have to clean lenses as often," he said.
Andrew Thompson, Brooks County, Ga., has used a Farm Scan monitor on 1,700 acres of cotton for the past three years. "We've had no mechanical problems with the monitors, but we clean the lenses every morning before we get started."
Thompson said the combination of yield monitors and aerial photography has allowed him to identify nematode infestation sites and to evaluate treatment programs.
"I run the pickers myself, so I know where weak spots are," he said. "But any farmer who doesn't harvest all his fields himself, needs something to provide that information. He may decide, based on yield monitor data, to take part of a field out of production.
"We can compare results over several years to see if solutions, such as nematicides, work or whether the area is simply not profitable."
Thompson said cotton farmers always have weak spots in fields. "We have areas where we know we'll find boll rot. We seldom make a middle or bottom crop in these areas. Identifying these spots allows us to do a better job of managing plant height to reduce boll rot losses. The difference shows up on yield monitors."
Thompson said monitor manufacturers should improve lenses. "We can't afford the time to clean lenses as often as we need to to assure accuracy," he said.
Joe Boddiford, a Screven County, Ga., farmer, tested no-till peanuts with a harvest monitor and found serious yield differences compared to conventional peanuts. "We noted a severely reduced yield in the no-till plots," he said, "but each farmer has to do what's best on his farm. And what's best is what works.
"Yield monitors help determine what's working," he said. "We can identify site-specific yield variances that are sometimes so subtle we can't see them from a combine or cotton picker. We also identify irrigation deficiencies."
Boddiford agrees with Thompson that cleaning lenses is a problem. "We haven't found a really good commercial yield monitor for cotton yet," he said. "We're getting close, and it's time to put monitors on at least one picker to begin building a baseline of information."
He said a monitor will pay off just by identifying whether scrapping a field is justified."
Brock Taylor, a cotton consultant from Escalon, Calif., says yield monitor data "looks pretty good compared to other yield measurements."
"We've been practicing precision farming for 20 years," Taylor said, "and have found that cotton yield monitors provide a tool we can use to reduce costs and document production practice benefits."
He said farmers using variable rate application technology have to use yield monitors to show advantages.
"We can evaluate stand, nutrient, chemical applications, etc., to determine efficacy," he said. "To maintain the lint yield trend we've enjoyed for the past few years, we have to adopt new technology."
Yield monitors are only part of what could be termed a technological evolution on Jerry Brightbill's Plainview, Texas, farm. Brightbill adopted technology to "squeeze every bit of effort possible out of every minute worked on his farm.
"We figure we have only 600 minutes a day to work, and we have to make every one of them count," he said.
Brightbill uses technology to control all his irrigation systems, via computer (a Trimble 170), from his office. He can alter water pressure, change speeds, turn systems on or off and trouble-shoot from a computer console.
"If we have breakdowns, we know exactly where the problem occurs and can send a repair crew directly to that site. That saves time and wear on vehicles."
Brightbill also knows exactly where pivots are running at any given time and can schedule spray applications on the dry sections. Computer technology also helps him track production practices.
"We always know when we applied a specific material or performed a specific production practice," he said. "We know when, where and what. That could be essential information if we have questions later on drift or application problems."
He said technology has allowed him to reduce chemical expenses by 3.5 percent.
"Remote sensing has allowed us to see a field as an entire picture," he said. "Infrared photography also shows us where weaknesses occur. We left a cover crop on one location three weeks longer than in the rest of the field. We documented a significant yield loss in that location and realized that leaving the cover on too long was the difference."
Brightbill also uses a guidance line at planting for his no-till cotton. "We follow that line with all subsequent field operations. That saves time. We use software to create early- and late-planting zones."
He said technology allows him to build layers of data on soil characteristics and other factors useful in crop management decisions.
"A row-track guidance system on cotton strippers keeps harvest operations at 100 percent efficiency."
He said yield maps help identify management zones and improve overall yields. "We use maps and other technology to identify problems and help us find solutions quickly. We've been able to document that rotation with corn increases cotton yields. We also can determine if the increased yield will pay, based on higher costs and lower price for the grain."
Brightbill said technology has allowed him to reduce costs by 10 percent and increase yields by "at least 10 percent. We make the most of every minute we farm."