Cotton production, says Gaines County, Texas, farmer Wesley Butchee, is like a three-legged stool: “You have to have all three legs for a stool to work. And you can’t short-change a cotton crop. There are so many things you have to do to make cotton. We have to have a certain amount of seed, fuel and fertilizer.”

Even following a year as disheartening as 2011, Butchee doesn’t believe in skimping on the essentials.

But he’s tweaking a few things to improve efficiency.

He will take advantage of left-over fertilizer from last year’s failed dryland acreage. “Irrigated cotton used up all the fertilizer,” he says. “But dryland cotton didn’t make so we did not fertilize dryland acreage this year.”

He’s cut back on irrigated acreage, too. “This year I want to make certain I don’t stretch water resources too far. Last year let us know that irrigation is only supplemental.” He’s re-nozzled some systems to increase efficiency a bit. “But I’ve been using a low energy precision application (LEPA) system for years. I use bubblers, set about 18 inches off the ground. I’ve tried drag hoses before but they are no more efficient than the bubblers.”

He’s had to irrigate less this spring to get the crop up than he did last year. “We have some underground moisture, but if we go down 2 feet, it gets dry. We’re planting shallow. The seed has some moisture under it, and we irrigate with an inch to get it up.”

Butchee says some of his fields received 3 inches of rain in April and May. “And it fell slowly.” That moisture soaked into the soil. In other areas, rain fell fast and hard and more ran off the fields.

He typically plants as much minimum-till cotton as he can but had to cut back this year. “When it was time to plant wheat we had no moisture,” he says. “We didn’t want to irrigate a cover crop and then go to the expense of killing it.

“From harvest last fall until April we had no rain at all,” he says. “And we went for more than 12 months with no rain. We have to have faith to continue; otherwise, we just worry.”

And there’s plenty he could worry over.

Market a question mark

“Our biggest fear this year is the market,” he says. He says cotton “enjoyed high prices” for two years. “Funds came in and destroyed the market. They knocked producers out, and it was hard for us to price cotton. If the buyer can’t price cotton, the grower can’t either.”

He says cotton farmers have to figure out a price to sell, and they may be looking at oversupply.

Contracts are hard to find, especially acreage contracts. “Buyers want bale contracts,” Butchee says. “But weather is a big if for yields.”

He says acreage contracts have not been offered. “I’ve had acreage contracts for years and always delivered my cotton, even when I over-produced.”

Not being able to lock in a price on at least part of his acreage makes it difficult to figure returns. Production costs, he says, are excessive. “Fuel and fertilizer are still high, and we have no way to hedge those costs. The cost/price squeeze is worse than it was five years ago.”

He says the precipitous rise of cotton prices two years ago to $2 is misleading. “Producers got a lot less than that. Most farmers averaged from 82 cents to 85 cents a pound. And production costs tripled.”

He said holding cotton until harvest could be tough on farmers, especially if they end up putting cotton into the loan. “The loan is a program that keeps us from losing too much,” he says. “It’s below the cost of production. And we have to pay it back when the cotton comes out.”

Butchee says he tries “not to be dismal, but we have to be careful about what we do out here.”

He says farmers face a lot of perils they can’t control. “Farm programs were put in place years ago to balance out against foreign governments. We can’t control China, and that’s a big factor in the market.”

He says farm organizations are helping with the politics of agriculture and “keeping producers in business.” It’s critical for more than just farm families, he adds. “Agriculture and medical centers are what keep Lubbock’s economy going.”

He’s also concerned about the weakening of farm programs. “We no longer have a safety net,” he says. “We need a counter cyclical payment option but we’re not going to get it. We can’t grow cotton at a loss. We also need to see production costs come down.”

Available credit is also a key. “Most of agriculture runs off borrowed money, and we have to maintain the ability to secure loans.”

He has production tools to rely on.

Proven varieties

Proven varieties have performed well for him. “Nothing worked well last year, however. It just got too hot. Fields where we pumped all season made a good crop; it was just expensive to grow.”

He says varieties carry better genetics than they used to. “Last year we really couldn’t tell a difference, but we always look at variety trials from the Extension Service and Plains Cotton Growers’ Cotton Improvement Program. Those trials are more valuable because they do acreage, not just test plots.” Information from acreage trials, he says, “translates to the farm. I can be confident the variety will perform.”

He’s planting mostly Phytogen seed this year, 375 and a seed block of 499. “I like the 375 and have had it here for four years. It yields and is not a high maintenance cotton. It responds well to irrigation and has good staple, leaf and strength.”

Butchee says GPS technology also provides significant benefits. “We have a lot of technology available,” he says. “GPS is a good tool. We can monitor to prevent over-spraying and over-planting. We also use iPhones and smart phones like laptop computers now.”

He’s not sure agriculture is ready to see a “manless” tractor but doesn’t doubt the capability of the industry.

“We updated our GPS system just last year to a new model that is faster, more accurate and with a touch screen. It also takes up less room in the tractor cab.”

A new issue, he says, is finding people to run it. “We need someone who can go over it one time and get it instead of spending three weeks training and then have them move on.”

In late May, his daughter, Ashley, a Texas Tech student, was helping plant cotton. “She grew up with computers,” Butchee says. And she gets it with one session.

He also credits his father for pushing new technology.

Butchee is not pessimistic about cotton production. He’s much more positive about this crop than he was about the 2011 season this time last year. “I never saw a year that bad.” He’s farmed on his own for nearly 30 years.

“My dad, who has farmed for more than 55 years, also never saw a year like that. It was a perfect storm of drought, heat and wind. We’re hoping this will not be nearly as bad a year. We have some moisture in the ground, and wind in March was not as bad.”

Butchee says he feels much better about prospects for this crop. In late May he was “a little more than half through planting,” with most of the irrigated cotton in the ground and a good portion of dryland still to be done.

“We’ve had some rain,” he says, “but we need some more.”