West Texas cotton farmers take a “leap of faith” every planting season says Shawn Holladay, who farms with his father, Grant, near Lamesa.
“We have to commit to the crop and we're not always sure it will work,” Shawn says.
Commitment means sticking with a production plan, regardless of in-season challenges or the price of inputs.
When fertilizer prices doubled last year, for instance, the Holladays refused to sacrifice yield potential by cutting back and trying to save money.
“We stick with what we know works,” Shawn says. “We have to keep yields up,” Grant adds.
They say the new varieties they plant offer significantly improved yield potential compared to what they were planting just 10 years ago. “If we cut back on fertility we're defeated before we start,” Shawn says. “These new traits mean higher inputs, so we make up our minds when we plant that we're going to stay with the crop.”
Grant says some seasons sticking with the plan means managing lost money. “Sometimes that's just as important as managing to make money,” he says. “Sometimes, if we stay with our program we lose less money than if we cut off inputs.”
They say reduced fertility simply makes no sense when they're trying to make 3 bales per acre on irrigated land and better than a bale on dryland.
Varieties are all Roundup Ready Flex and most are Bollgard II selections. They planted Americot 1532, NexGen 3348 and FiberMax 9060 this year.
They choose varieties for yield potential and for special needs. “The NexGen variety is good where we have Verticillium wilt,” Shawn says. “We'll still see some wilt in the fields, but the variety hangs on.”
He says Americot 1532 is a good variety for dryland acreage. They chose the FiberMax variety for late planting.
“We don't plant a lot of different varieties,” Shawn says. “When we find something we like, we stay with it. We follow variety trials and see what yields are likely to be before we plant anything new.”
They have certain factors they need to consider before adding a variety. “We look at what we need for our operation and our soils,” Shawn says. “We get as much information as we can and may try something on 100 or 200 acres, but only after we have some data behind it.”
“We plant 100 percent Flex cotton,” Grant says. “Flex has made the biggest impact of any new technology on cotton production. We can do things with Flex I've wanted to do in cotton all my life — keep fields clean.”
They still use a pre-emergence herbicide, even with Flex cotton. “Farmers to the east have run into resistant weeds,” Shawn says. “We hope we have enough technology to avoid resistance here.”
But they don't depend on just one herbicide to control their weed problems.
“If the yellow herbicide holds to mid-to-late July, we may get by with just one application of Roundup. But if we have a lot of rain, all bets are off,” Shawn says. “With this new technology, however, timing is critical. We have to apply it when it's needed.”
He says stacked varieties with Flex and Bollgard II offer a good combination. “Bollgard II is better than the original Bollgard. It gets beet and fall armyworms. We have severe worm pressure only about one in every three years. But every year they seem to nickel and dime us, just below the threshold level.”
He says they always got some yield loss, even with that light infestation. “With Bollgard II, that's no longer a problem. We don't have missing fruit and we maintain cotton quality. We have more problems now with early season plant bugs and flea hoppers. Those are more important than anything else now.”
In mid-September they were just getting ready to apply harvest aids to their earliest irrigated cotton. “We use one quart of Prep and 2 ounces of ET,” Shawn says. “A week later we may come back with another quart of Prep and another 2 ounces of ET. We like to get cotton out as fast as possible when it's mature to prevent quality loss.”
“With the picker cottons we grow now we don't want to leave it vulnerable to bad weather. If it's ready we can't get it out too soon.”
Cutting back on tillage has not been a yield robber, the Holladays say. “We plant into stubble where we rotate with wheat,” Shawn says. “In some fields without rotation we plant wheat in the middles. We're not real sandy but the soil still blows.”
They follow a more conventional tillage regime with dryland acreage. “But we only plow once in season instead of five or six because of Roundup Ready Flex cotton,” Grant says.
They typically knife in fertilizer as they till. “We apply half our fertilizer before we plant and the rest in-season,” Shawn says.
They're careful with plant growth regulator applications. “I've used some,” Shawn says. Grant did not this year.
“If we put on a plant growth regulator in July when it rains we may get a period of high temperatures and high winds and no rain. We need to get cotton big enough to shade the ground in August. If we get a good shade, we need a little less water.”
Together the Holladays grow 7,300 acres of cotton. Shawn irrigates about 650 acres and Grant has about 700 irrigated. “We don't have any drip, just pivots,” Shawn says. “We're fortunate to maintain water levels.”
“We don't have big water,” Grant says. “But we're able to maintain pretty well. Some areas to the south go to nothing into July and August. We got by OK this year. We only had 8 to 9 inches of rain all year, about 6 inches in season. But we got some four-tenths and five-tenths rains along, just enough to keep it going.”
They say the dryland crop is “above average and the irrigated crop is excellent.”
Harvest time will be busy. “We have two 8-row strippers and will hire as many as eight or nine more and maybe some pickers to get anything too growthy,” Shawn says.
“With the varieties we plant, they all get ready at about the same time,” Grant says. “We plant all picker-type cotton. We were planting Acala cotton before switching to the newer picker types. We were looking for quality and now we get more yield, too. We're getting away from the loose cotton mentality in West Texas. We went against the grain.”
He says now West Texas cotton farmers can produce quality with anybody.
Global positioning system technology has helped improve efficiency. “We don't have a guidance system on every tractor yet,” Shawn says. “But we do use them. We have guidance on sprayers. GPS is worth the expense.”
He says when he and his dad did most of the tractor driving themselves, they did a pretty good job of staying straight, without GPS. “But as we added labor with less farm experience, it became more valuable. The operation got bigger, but we still look at it as one farm and we have to do what needs to be done.'
He says some farmers say they can't afford technology. “But we study what's coming and see if we can implement it.”
Shawn is the fourth generation to farm this land. “My father and grandfather farmed here,” Grant says. “We've always raised cotton as our primary crop.”
He says the next improvement he'd like to see would be “a better price for cotton. I've seen 50 cent cotton for 50 years.”
With four generations of tradition, they both agree that a big goal is to keep improving the farm. “It's important to us to improve the land,” Shawn says. “We make our living off the land so it's important to us. Good stewardship makes good economic sense.”