Editor's note: West Texas cotton farmers sometimes get branded as low-input producers. The thought process goes that trying to grow cotton in an area as unpredictable as the Texas Plains or in rain-dependent Central Texas, comes with so many risks that putting a lot of money into the crop makes little sense considering all the things that can go wrong with it.

That production philosophy may make sense to some, and more than a few growers have eked out a living growing dryland cotton with minimum inputs. But a growing number of Central and West Texas farmers are increasing management intensity, in both dryland and, especially, in irrigated fields to enhance yield potential and to produce the highest quality fiber possible.

Following is the first in a series of articles depicting some of the best management practices farmers are using to improve profit potential in Texas cotton. Subsequent articles will look at basic production recommendations to improve yield and quality, dryland management and the importance of variety trials as part of a farm's long-term management strategy.

You don't have to go farther than Ricky Bearden's driveway to figure out how he feels about cotton. A dumpster on the corner of his Plains, Texas, home features the Cotton logo, standing in stark contrast against a dark brown background paint.

He credits his wife, Karen, and daughter, Kyley, with beautifying the large garbage bin, but his production philosophy in the field shows his commitment to the crop.

“Cotton is what works best here,” Bearden said of the sometimes too-dry conditions that limit productivity. “It's tough to grow dryland crops and we have to use our irrigation water wisely,” he said. “It would be easy if we could predict which years we would get enough rain.”

Bearden sets a high standard and tries to average about two-and-half bales per acre over the 2,000-acres of irrigated cotton. He grows as much as 4,000 dryland acres, with a one-half to three-fourths bale per acre goal each year, and also produces milo, peanuts and wheat.

He said the key to any farmer's success is finding out what works on a specific field. “Anyone who has farmed a field for several years knows it,” he said. The weed population, fertility level and moisture capacity, for instance, may dictate management techniques.

He said the first key to hitting yield goals is to select the best variety for each specific location. He has about 80 acres in a large plot variety trial that Texas Extension cotton specialist Randy Boman conducts every year.

“I think we have 18 different varieties this year,” Bearden said. Watching varieties from year to year on his own farm gives him a unique perspective on how well new releases will perform under his growing conditions.

He's using three FiberMax varieties in 2005: 950, 966LL and 958. He's also growing some DP&L, Stoneville and AFD varieties.

“First consideration in variety selection remains yield,” Bearden said. “Then I look for staple length. I also consider storm-proof characteristics, micronaire, strength and uniformity.”

He said staple comes with genetics. “Weather has a lot to do ith mic.”

Yield and grade have both been better for the past five years, Bearden said.

Technology plays a role.

He said varieties with Bollgard and Roundup Ready traits have made a difference in his operation.

“We're careful with Roundup Ready if we have morning glory problems,” he said. That goes back to knowing his fields. He may use Liberty Link varieties in areas with weed populations that may not be as vulnerable to Roundup. “It's important to match varieties to the field,” he said.

Bt cotton has impressed Bearden in variety trials. “I saw it in tests in 2000 or 2001,” he said, “and we never saw enough worms to justify spraying. And I noticed a significant difference in yield across the varieties with the Bt trait, either stacked or with just Bollgard. That test made a believer out of me. I was able to see advantages and differences.”

Bearden said Boman's large-scale trials help growers make variety decisions. “Randy puts numbers to the trial data. This year, most of my acreage is in Bt varieties. It may not pay every year, but for my operation, Bt is worth the money.”

He's also learned a lot about picker varieties from Boman's trials. “We have a lot of information available from these tests,” he said.

Bearden said technology has to cash flow. “Adopting new things may help us make more cotton, but the cotton crop has to pay for it,” he said, “whether its seed technology, guidance systems or better tractors, we have to pay for it with a crop.”

Fertility is a key to maintaining yields. “We sometimes find a swath where we may have cut the switch off and missed applying fertilizer and can see all the difference in the world,” he said. “We have to take care of our land and maintaining fertility is part of that process. When we make a crop we mine some of the nutrients and we have to replace what we take out. But we don't want to overdo it and waste fertilizer.”

Bearden said every farmer does things a little differently. “There's no one right way to do it, but we try to maintain the land and build fertility to a certain point. We soil test to determine fertility needs and know that it takes a certain number of pounds of nitrogen to make a certain number of bales of cotton. If we take so much out, we have to put that much back in.”

Limited water resources make irrigation management crucial. Bearden said where he has light water he may split a center pivot in half, plant half in wheat for rotation. He conserves all the water for his cotton crop, planted on the other half-circle.

“I have to manage the water I have carefully,” he said. “Some years, I put on all the water I can get out. If it rains enough, I'll shut the system down.”

Bearden uses pivots on all his irrigated acreage. “It's an efficient way to water crops. I can get smaller amounts of water on if I need to.”

In early September, he was applying about three-fourths-inch of water. “I just want to hold what we have,” he said. “I can put on six-tenths or seven-tenths. In the summer, I like to apply from one-and-one-fourth to one-and-one-half inch each time around.”

He uses a consultant on his irrigated acreage to help with pest control. “Bt cotton helps with the worm complex and the Boll Weevil Eradication Program has been a big advantage.”

He said lygus and aphids replace weevils and worms as key problems. “We can get one bug complex under control and then we have problems with something else,” he said. “Lygus began to show up after we got the boll weevil. We may not have to spray every year but it is important to save those early-season bolls. We mange each pest differently but I can see no need in growing a pound of cotton and letting something get it.”

He's also watching aphids closely. “We don't want to develop a reputation as a sticky cotton area. We have not had that reputation but we don't want to risk it.”

He's used both an in-furrow insecticide and a seed treatment to help with early season insects and diseases. “I think seed treatment use will increase,” he said.

Fungicide-treated seed may help reduce damage from seedling disease. “It depends on the year, but sometimes, in cool, wet springs, we can get problems. I've seen a difference in years when I did not use the seed treatment.”

Bearden said timing, whether it's planting date, plant growth regulator application, harvest aid treatments or pest control, plays a crucial role in achieving top yields.

“We apply Pix according to the way cotton grows. Sometimes, we apply none. In some places we see where we should have added more. In some years, with limited irrigation, growth regulators let us do the same with less water. If we get plenty of rain, the cotton grows quickly and we need Pix.”

“It's a management tool,” Bearden added, “and we have to learn to apply it to specific locations, and need varies from field to field. I don't think we should automatically use it on every field every year.”

He said harvest aid materials also require accurate timing to be effective. “Like nearly everything else we do, timing is the key to successful harvest aid use.”

He likes to be through listing and ready to plant by early April.

Variety selection accounts for part of Bearden's weed control program. He uses both Roundup Ready and Liberty Link varieties and takes care of many weed problems with timely over-the-top applications.

“I usually use two shots of Ignite on the Liberty Link cotton,” he said. “It's cheaper than using a hoe.”

He also uses a pre-plant, yellow herbicide on all his cotton and adds Caparol and Treflan over the top “right behind the planter.”

Tillage is important to Bearden's operation. “I'm not a no-till farmer,” he said. “I still break with a moldboard plow in the winter if moisture is adequate. If not, I may just list it up.”

He said deep tillage in sandy land helps hold the soil in place. “That's what works best for me,” he said. “I don't need separate pieces of equipment for dryland and irrigated acreage.”

Bearden credits his labor force with much of the farm's success. “It's an important part of this operation. I have good employees.”

He said every piece of agricultural legislation the Congress has passed is also a “jobs bill. Agriculture creates jobs,” he said.

Apart from production practices, Bearden said farmers also have to be aware of “what's going on in politics.”

As a member of t Cotton Incorporated, The National Cotton Council, and Plains Cotton Growers Inc., Bearden encourages growers to support commodity associations. “The reality is, we may not change everyone's mind but we have to impress on the people who make decisions that affect us how important agriculture is.”

He said public perception of farming may not be a logical target but the majority of the Senate and the House should be. “We have to show our legislators that agriculture is a viable industry in this country and a vital part of the economy. We have to become part of the political process.”

e-mail: rsmith@primediabusiness.com