Technology makes perfect economic sense to Todd, Shawn and Tyson Knight.

In the past few years the Abernathy, Texas, cotton and sunflower producers have  added a module picker, GPS technology, stacked gene cotton varieties, subsurface drip irrigation and computerized irrigation they can control with a cell phone.

All that technology provides more than just gadgetry, they say. Each innovation increases production efficiency, reduces costs or improves yield.

“It just makes economic sense,” Todd says. Todd and Shawn are brothers and farm together. Tyson is Todd’s son and farms on his own but shares equipment, including the John Deere module picker they bought last year, with his dad and uncle.

Sticker shock for a machine priced in excess of half-a-million dollars makes a lot of cotton farmers considering an upgrade delay purchase of a cotton picker that builds modules on the fly. But the Knights consider what they gain in efficiency.

More efficient

“We replaced three module builders, two eight-row strippers and three bale buggies with one machine and saved labor and time,” Todd says. “It takes about an hour in the morning to get it set up and we need to make only a few adjustments.”

It’s also not hard to run. “We run steady at at 4.2 miles per hour,” Todd says. “With a stripper we have to watch closer.”

The module picker holds enough plastic to wrap 22 rolls of picked cotton.

They’re getting better grades. “We’re not picking up the bark like we were with strippers,” Todd says. “We got a good bit of bark stripping cotton.”

Switching to a picker was a logical transition, they say. “We started growing picker cotton five or six years ago and have been getting a good premium for high quality cotton,” Shawn says.

Turnout is also better, 38 percent compared to 33 percent with strippers. “We can pick about 120 acres a day,” Tyson says, “about the same as with two eight-row strippers.”

“Last year we were thorough picking (some 6,000 bales) by Thanksgiving,” Todd says

Emphasis on quality

They’re growing all stacked-gene cotton, with an emphasis on quality fiber. In 2010 they’re planting Phytogen 375WRF and FiberMax 9160, 9170, 9063 and 1880. “All of those are stacked varieties,” Shawn says.

They’ll grow the Phytogen for seed. “With seed production, we can’t have any volunteer cotton,” Shawn says, “so we have to follow another crop. We have to do everything right to grow seed.”

Weed control is important to their entire crop and they work with a reduced tillage system and the herbicide tolerant varieties. “We cut stalks after harvest to 8 inches to 10 inches tall,” Todd says. “We plant back into the stalks.”

They’re planting sunflowers on about one-fourth their acreage (Tyson also has some grain sorghum) and will plant cotton into sunflower residue. “Stalks keep sand from blowing,” Todd says.

They apply 2, 4-D and Banvel in early spring to control winter weeds. They plant and then spray Paraquat to kill volunteer cotton. They also use some Direx then Roundup over the top, sometimes mixed with Dual around the first of July for residual activity.

“This system helps prevent weed resistance,” Todd says. “We’ve been using this program for three or four years and it works well. Sometimes we may use sweeps to get volunteer cotton. If it weren’t for volunteer cotton we would never till at all.”

New rotation

Sunflowers have been a good addition to the Knight operation. They’re growing seed sunflowers for oil, on contract with Triumph. “They’ve done really well for us and are easy to grow,” Todd says.

They plant pollinators in early April and the rest of the crop a few weeks later. They typically water into July then switch irrigation to cotton into August. They harvest sunflowers in September.

The rotation is an advantage, too. “We’ve made some of our best cotton behind sunflowers,” Todd says.  “We grow dwarf varieties that take less out of the soil than taller plants. At first we put sunflowers on our weaker land but we’ve moved them to better soils.”

They irrigate 90 percent of their acreage, mostly through pivots but with some subsurface drip systems. “We’ve made our best yields on drip irrigation,” Shawn says, “but we baby the drip a little bit.”

Water supply, for the most part, remains fairly stable. “We’ve declined some but not too bad,” Todd says. “We used a lot last year.”

They had not turned the pivots on by early April and had good planting moisture to get the crop started. Todd says they’ll make one pass across the fields to apply about an inch before planting. “But we have good deep moisture.”

They recently installed a new control system on pivot irrigation. “We control pivots with a computer, through cell phones,” Todd says. GPS coordinates help analyze the system. “It tells us if they break down and we can adjust application rates or cut the system off from a phone.”

“We still need to check it,” Shawn says, “but we know where we need to go first.”

Todd says they discussed the control system for four or five years. “It finally got affordable. And as important as irrigation is, we have to keep it going. It’s one of our biggest expenses, along with seed and fertilizer.”

Fertilizer management

They’re trying to manage fertilization expenses a little closer. They apply about 60 percent of the nutrients with a coulter rig, “right by the plant,” Todd says. “We put the rest through the pivots in-season.”

They use two 16-row planters to plant in early May. “The hardest part is loading the seed,” Shawn says.

Insects also cause a lot less trouble than they used to. With boll weevil eradication efforts paying off and Bollgard cotton varieties, they rarely spray for insect pests in-season.

“We use Temik at planting,” Todd says. “That takes care of thrips.”

“We haven’t had to spray for insects in years,” Shawn says.

“Not since we started using stacked varieties,” adds Todd. “That’s what makes the technology pay.”

Shawn says a big planter and a big spray unit increase efficiency. Adding GPS technology makes it even better. “Swath control is invaluable,” he says. “We can’t get a sprayer without it any longer. We now have GPS on all our tractors. It helps us stay in the rows.”

They say with GPS they use half as many tractors and half as much labor.

With the module picker, GPS and better varieties, they also cut back on other expenses. “With picker cotton and picker harvest we’re spraying only a high rate of boll opener,” Todd says, “so we’re saving on harvest aids. We plant mostly medium maturity cotton and reduce the amount of plant growth regulator we use. We want some height on our cotton.”

They admit that equipment is expensive, seed costs are high and that fertilizer prices, even though lower by far than just two years ago, still account for a big chunk of production expenses, but they also agree that technology, including more efficient equipment and stacked gene varieties, have streamlined their operation and increased yield potential.

Economically, the investments make sense.

rsmith@farmpress.com