John Polansky misses cotton. No wonder. This spring, for the first time since 1960, Polansky planted no cotton on his Central Texas farm, just outside the small town of West.
Failing health and rising production costs convinced Polansky and his wife Nancy to forego cotton and concentrate on corn, milo and wheat as they make a few more crops before retirement.
They quit on a high note.
“We made the best cotton crop ever last year,” John says. “It was an exceptional yield.”
And a sight better than the one-third to one-half bale yields they recall from the early days. Nancy keeps photo albums of crops they've made since 1960. She points to reminders of the earlier years, faded black and white photos of short cotton, antique equipment and a handsome young couple devoted to making a living from their land.
“If we made a half-bale an acre, we thought we had a great crop,” Nancy says.
“Of course we had $8 or $10 an acre in fertilizer instead of the $35 to $45 we need now,” John says. “And tractors didn't cost $100,000 and more.”
They agree that changes in cotton and grain technology, though costly, put two-bale cotton, 100-bushel corn and three-ton milo within reach of dryland farmers.
“We've seen a lot of changes in 45 years,” John says. “Better varieties made the biggest difference. We used to be happy with 20 bushels of corn per acre and when we made 30 we had a great crop.”
Weather still plays the key role in production but John says a realistic range is 40 bushels to 100 bushels per acre. A 40-bushel yield would be a disappointment.
He says genetically modified corn and cotton varieties allow him to cut fuel costs and still control weeds. “I plant Roundup Ready corn and cotton. I tried Bt cotton but I can't see enough difference in yield to justify the cost. Newer milo varieties don't have technology traits but yield better,” he says.
He planted DPL 436 RR cottonseed last year.
“We have a lot more cottonseed options,” he says. “We have indeterminate varieties that continue to grow as long as they get moisture.”
“We didn't have much technology when we started,” Nancy says. “We've seen a lot of changes.”
They recall chopping cotton and early herbicide options.
“We used oiling shoes with naphtha when the cotton still had a waxy coat on the stem,” John says. “We put nozzles on each side of the row and squirted naphtha underneath the plant to kill weeds.”
“If we waited until the cotton stalk started to crack we would have killed the cotton, too,” Nancy says.
They remember flame cultivators and improved herbicides: MSMA and DSMA were two of the first.
“I remember the uncomfortable seats we rigged on each side of the tractor for spot spraying,” Nancy says.
“We don't have an excuse for weedy fields with the chemicals we have today,” John says.
He's concerned about resistance, though, if farmers rely too much on Roundup. “We already have resistant horsetail and I'm afraid one of these days farmers who have gone totally no-till may be looking for a good set of cultivators. I kept mine.”
“We're seeing weeds we've never seen before,” Nancy says. “I guess seed are blowing in or coming in on equipment.”
John still cultivates. He did not have to plow corn this year and cultivated milo only twice. He considers himself a conventional tillage farmer who has adjusted. “We make about half as many trips across the fields as we used to,” he says. That meant significant savings for the 2005 crop because of significantly higher fuel costs.
Insect control bears little resemblance to the options they had in 1960. “We didn't scout the way we do now,” John says. “We sprayed cotton on an interval.”
They were using pesticides such as DDT, Toxaphene and Parathion.
“We knew insecticides but we didn't know integrated pest management,” John says. “That's been one of the biggest changes in cotton production, starting sometime in the mid-1980s. Until then, early in the season we sprayed weekly.”
His grandfather and father preferred to get a crop on the stalk and then use a late-season spray to protect it. “I didn't spray much late in the season when I first started farming,” he says, “but the last 10 years we sprayed late when the scout said to. Dad changed to an early season spray in the late 1950s.”
Last year, his best crop ever, also tops the list as the most expensive. “We had to spray 10 times, start to finish. Typically, we make four or five insecticide applications.”
He started with thrips, fleahoppers, overwintered weevils, then worms and late weevils and used a load of chemicals not available when he started farming. He applied Bidrin, Vydate, Tracer, Larvin, Baythroid and Thiodan last year. “I keep records of all the chemicals I use,” he says.
He used seed treatments on cotton, corn and milo. “We used some Cruiser, Poncho 250 and Gaucho. I used to treat seed myself but, even though these cost more, they are easier and safer to use.”
That technology has been around only a few years, he says.
He's always been eager to cooperate with Extension specialists and industry representatives who wanted to put test plots on his fields. He recalls one year a specialist seemed a bit hesitant about adding an extra application of Pix on a two-acre plot. John convinced him that losing a little yield on that acreage would not be a huge burden, so they sprayed it on.
“The field that made the most cotton had the most Pix on it,” he says.
“I always wanted to see what new products would do on my fields. I've seen where you plant a variety on two fields and get different results. I always take test plots with a grain of salt because I want to see it on my ground. Soil and climate make a difference in how something works.”
He put in a plot for Chaperone, a yield enhancer, last year and says results were promising. “It seemed to make bigger bolls,” he says, “but we could tell no change until we stripped it.”
Nancy, who worked the module builder, says she could tell a difference in the way the test plot packed.
“I would have tried it again this year if I had planted cotton,” John says. “But I like to see a product or variety at least three years before I'm convinced. That usually gives us a wet year, a dry year and an average year.”
Change too fast
That's not always possible, he says. “I'll try one or two bags of a new seed and plan to test for three years, but sometimes they do away with the seed number before I know what it will do.”
“There is such as thing as technology changing too fast,” Nancy says. “By the time we know something works they replace it with something else.”
She admits that adopting technology has allowed them to be successful on their 600-acre farm for 45 years. “We made a lot of changes because of need. We had to change to keep up.”
“If our yields were the same as in 1960, with costs and prices the way they are, we would have folded up,” John says.
“Farmers who don't change go out of business,” Nancy adds.
As do those who don't manage their assets. John says a corn farmer will spend from $40 to $50 per acre for fertilizer and $100 for a bag of seed that covers about three acres. “He has to consider fuel, repair, equipment and chemical costs. He has a land cost, whether he owns or leases. A farmer puts $150 an acre in a corn crop easy.”
And he has no guarantees. “A farmer may make 40 bushels an acre instead of 100 and aflatoxin could mean $1.50 instead of $2.50 a bushel, if he can sell the corn at all.
“Management is the key,” John says. “I had a high school agriculture teacher who told me that and it's just as true today. We have to manage assets, production and inputs. Farming is a business.”
And the business changes. The Polanskys rely on corn and milo this year. “We had a little wheat but we baled it because of heavy disease pressure,” John says. “It worked out because we needed the hay for cattle.”
He admits to missing cotton. His father grew it in this same area, as did his father.
“I miss growing it but I don't miss worrying about it coming up with all the bad weather we had at planting. And I don't miss the cost of growing it.”
Two-bale ‘89 crop
He and Nancy recall that the best cotton they made from 1960 through 1989 was the ‘89 crop, which pushed two bales. “We made a good crop in 1990, but the 2004 crop was the best ever.”
He says weather made it happen. “We had timely rains. Still, it was an expensive crop to grow and then the buyers stole it. So with energy prices up and some health issues we decided it was time to try something else this year. I've always liked a little variety. If one basket breaks it's good not to have all our eggs in it. Maybe another basket will work better.”
Corn and milo prospects look good in mid-June. “But we need a little rain,” John says.
He and Nancy say their quest for technology is about done. “We will not go to a GPS system,” he says.
They hope to make two more good crops and then pare back to acreage they own.
“We're not thinking much about GPS technology,” he says. “We're just getting ready for retirement.”