One more rain — just one more inch of water late in the summer could have turned a good cotton yield into a super crop for Steven Beakley.
As it turned out, the Ennis, Texas, cotton, wheat and sunflower producer, was making from 650 to 900 pounds of dryland cotton per acre as he hit the halfway point of harvest in mid-September.
“That’s not bad for dryland cotton, considering the drought,” he says. “I have absolutely no complaints about yields from this crop.”
He says drought in 2013 rivaled conditions of the last two seasons. “We had enough rainfall to make a crop — but just not enough to finish it. Grades may be off a little.”
As harvest moved toward completion, Beakley said quality was improving, with a lot of 36 and 37 staple grades. Final yield indicated a per acre average of about 750 pounds.
Beakley strives to produce the best cotton feasible while conserving as much soil and moisture as possible on the Ellis County farm he works with his father, Bob. That commitment was instrumental in earning him the 2014 Farm Press/Cotton Foundation High Cotton Award for the Southwest Region.
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“Overall, cotton wasn’t as good as in 2012, but it was a good crop,” he says. “All our acreage is dryland and 900 pounds per acre on dryland cotton is a good year.” He says his bottomland cotton will push that 900-pound mark.
Timely rainfall during the growing season kept the crop going, Beakley says, but “We were about one inch of rain away from making a super crop.”
Variety selection is key
He attributes much of the farm’s success to cotton variety selection, rotation, ample fertility, plant management and timeliness. And a timely rain or two never hurts. Now, he’ll add harvesting with a round baler to that list.
“We generally don’t follow cotton with cotton,” he says. “An exception was three years ago, when the price went to $1 per pound or more, and we planted cotton back-to-back. But, we usually stick with a cotton/sunflower/wheat rotation. We like to plant cotton behind sunflowers Some folks say it’s not a good idea to plant two taproot crops back-to-back, but it hasn’t been an issue when we get some rain. We harvest wheat and fallow it all summer.”
They like to maintain some crop residue and use a minimum-till system to plant the next crop. “We’re not no-till, and not necessarily conventional,” Beakley explains. “We don’t get a lot of residue from sunflowers and ‘sizing’ (cutting the residue into smaller pieces) the sunflower stalks after harvest is important, or we have trouble with it.”
He runs a Kelly harrow over sunflower land immediately after harvest, then spreads chicken litter. He runs a disk once and then smoothes the field again just before planting.
He’s been pleased with the chicken litter. “We’ve been using it for about five years, and on the entire farm for the last three. We get a price advantage compared to commercial fertilizer, so we get a little more bang for the buck. Also, under stress conditions, the crop seems to hold on a little better with chicken litter, which puts organic matter back into the soil.”
Analysis shows he gets 51 percent nitrogen, 51 percent phosphorus, 56 percent potassium and “loads of sulfur, magnesium, iron, manganese and other elements. We apply 1 ton per acre annually.”
He side-dresses with commercial nitrogen, about 200 pounds of 32 percent on cotton. “Nitrogen in the chicken manure is organic, so it’s slow to release,” he says. “We supplement nitrogen as needed.”
The sunflower rotation has been a good option, Beakley says. “It’s a good dry weather crop. About 45 percent of our acreage has been in sunflowers. The market has held up well the past few years, but with all commodities down a bit this year, prices won’t be as strong.”
Sunflower acreage in the area has increased from about 5,000 to more than 20,000 “in just a few years,” he says, based on what he’s seen come through his grain elevator.
Cotton management during the growing season is another key factor in success, Beakley says. “Early-season insect control is important, primarily for fleahoppers and thrips. We spray based on scouting reports. We’re also firm believers in plant growth regulators. The rate varies with the year, but research shows we can’t really hurt cotton plants with a PGR. It doesn’t affect yield, but makes the plant more efficient.”
Timing of essential practices and applications “goes across the board,” Beakley says. “Everything we do is geared toward an early harvest — that’s the key. Typically, we want to be out of the field by early October so we don’t run into weather issues. That hasn’t been a factor for the past few years, but it can be trouble. We prefer to finish harvesting in September.”
The round module harvester helps with that, he says. This (2013) was the first year he used the John Deere machine, but he’s sold on its efficiency. “We can just keep going and don’t have to stop,” he says. He figures he can accomplish as much with one harvester in a day as he could with three conventional machines. It also allows him to eliminate two module builders and the extra labor necessary to operate them.
“The round module machine simplifies harvest,” he says, “They’ve been around for five years or so, but until you run one, you can’t appreciate the advantages.”
The module harvester, GPS technology, boll weevil eradication and genetic engineering are among the most important changes since he’s been farming, Beakley says. At just 42 years old, he’s seen a lot of those changes occur in a relatively short time.
“I remember the first time I saw Bt cotton — I knew then that I wanted it. About two years later, it was the same thing with Roundup Ready cotton.” He credits Monsanto’s work with transgenic cotton varieties with improving opportunities for cotton farmers in his region. “They have a tremendous support group, and have spent a lot of time testing varieties on our farm to help identify the best options.”
He grows 100 percent Deltapine varieties, including DP 1219, 1133, and 1321 for the 2013 crop, all Bt and Roundup Ready Flex.
Variety selection is the top priority for a successful cotton crop, he says. “That’s why I like to work with seed companies on varieties for the future.” In addition to the Deltapine plots, he also has a county variety trial.
He is concerned about weeds resistant to Roundup — “pigweed mostly.” He’s gone back to a pre-emerge herbicide, Direx, which “seems to work really well. I had gotten away from pre-emergence materials, but Direx does a super job on pigweed. I didn’t see pigweed in any cotton fields this last year. I can take care of everything else with Roundup, and only had to apply it once in 2013, mostly for grasses. The dry year probably helped, too.”
Weed control is one issue he hopes to see as a research target. “Cultivation is no longer feasible,” he says. “We sold our last cultivator about 10 years ago. And hand labor is a thing of the past.
We need research into affordable, efficient weed control methods. “I foresee this being a really big problem. We need affordable weed control — a $60 to $70 per acre weed control application isn’t feasible.” A weed control program as successful as boll weevil eradication would be ideal, he says.
Boll weevil eradication has made a significant impact on cotton production in the northern Blacklands, Beakley says. He’s been the zone representative since the program began about eight years ago.
“It didn’t take long to eradicate the boll weevil, and I can’t put a value on what that has meant to cotton. Within two years of implementation, the boll weevil was no longer an economic issue. Some folks say they get from 100 pounds to 300 more pounds of cotton per acre because the boll weevil is gone.
“Without eradication, I don’t know how much cotton would be left in this part of Texas.”
Beakley and his father farm together. “We have his, mine, and ours — and farm everything together.”
He also has a grain elevator business. “We’ve always had on-farm storage,” he says, but he added more when he got interested in sunflowers and saw that other growers in the area needed a facility to handle the crop. He had about 480,000 bushels of capacity, and recently bought another facility that had closed, which brought overall storage up to about 1 million bushels.
Relationships are important to a farm community, Beakley says. “There are probably hundreds of farmers in the area who are just as deserving as I am of this award,” he says. “Many of them have done a lot for cotton.”
He points to the Monsanto support group as an example of relationships that have helped him and other growers in the region.
“Glenn Moore, retired Extension entomologist who is now a consultant, has been a tremendous help,” he says. Relationships with sunflower buyers also have been important to the area and have helped him grow the storage business, as has been the case for those who help him locate chicken litter sources in east Texas.
He doesn’t hesitate to share information with nearby farmers. “Developing these relationships helps everyone,” he says.
But he also recognizes his most important ally: “Nothing on the farm is more important than a wife who understands the farm and pays the bills, keeps the records and runs the kids around.”
His wife, Amber, didn’t grow up on a farm, but has taken to the life quite well. They have two daughters, Audrey, 12, and Mattie, 10, who show goats and thrive on the rural lifestyle.
Beakley, in addition to his position on the boll weevil eradication board, also serves as vice-president of the Youth Expo, is vice-president of the Avalon Co-op Gin, and is on the board of directors for the Ellis County Farm Bureau. They are members of the Church of Christ in Waxahachie.
Being involved makes a difference, he says. “It’s a matter of community — it’s not about individuals.”