Clarence Chopelas sees no reason why he can’t make better than three bales of cotton per acre, routinely, under irrigation on his San Patricio County, Texas, farm.

“Under my center pivots I’d like to average three-and-a-half bales per acre,” Chopelas says. “I think we can do it. We now have the varieties to make it.”

He’s doing all he can to tweak his production system to squeeze out every pound of lint possible from improved varieties such as DPL 455, FM 960 BR and his old standby FM 832.

“We had a good irrigated yield test using DPL 455 last year,” he said. “It has good potential and could be a good fit for this area (the Texas Coastal Bend, near Corpus Christi).”

Chopelas is taking hard looks at other practices as well through verification trials he’s working on with San Patricio County Extension agent Jeff Stapper and specialists from the Texas A&M Research and Extension programs in both Corpus Christi and Temple.

Together, they’re looking at irrigation timing, fertility and plant population on cotton, corn and grain sorghum. Soil moisture sensors have taught Chopelas a lot about watering cotton.

“Last year, I put more water on cotton based on sensor readings,” he says. “Before, I based irrigation schedules on years of experience.”

Read deeper

“We’ve actually changed sensor depths this year,” says Steve Livingston, agronomist at the Corpus Christi Research and Extension Center. “Last year, we placed sensors at 8 inches and 16 inches. We could get a shower to wet the top of the ground (and measure shallow moisture) but we didn’t know what was going on deeper in the profile. We have sensors at 12, inches, 24 inches and 36 inches this year, so we can read moisture levels as deep as three feet.”

“Sensors have been extremely beneficial,” Chopelas says. “They let me know what’s going on deep in the soil. This year, we were dry in the top three inches but at six inches down, we could make mud balls. Cotton roots were shallow as a result (in mid-April). The roots couldn’t get to the deeper moisture so we had to irrigate to get cotton out of the ground and up and running.”

It needed a spark. “It was a late-planted crop,” Chopelas says. “But weather warmed up and the cotton came up and was soon getting after it. We have to keep the bugs off now so we’ll scout regularly.”

Chopelas says the verification trials help fine-tune his operation. But weather always plays a role, regardless of what else he does for the crop.

“Last year, we had cool weather early and that set us back. We lost maybe two-thirds of a bale but when weather cleared up, the crop came back and made good yields. We were concerned but we still made about 1,500 pounds per acre.”

Chopelas and Stapper are using a computer crop management model, developed by Tom Gerik at the Blacklands Research Center in Temple, to help make production decisions.

Better information

“We’re setting up these trials to give farmers better information on how to manage crops, when to irrigate, for instance,” Stapper says. “Last year, we made some 1,500-pound cotton in spite of a late start and heavy rains after planting.”

They’re looking at corn and grain sorghum plots as well. Stapper says grain sorghum yields last year dipped because of weather. “We averaged 6,200 pounds, but we had hoped for 7,000. It was too wet to apply additional nitrogen.” He says corn fared better last year. “It was a good year for corn.”

Chopelas is looking at plant populations in one corn trial this year. “I’m checking 22,500, 25,000, 27,000, and 30,000 plants per acre,” he says. “Typical for irrigated acreage is 22,500. We plant 18,000 to 18,500 on dryland.”

He says corn was in on time and had adequate rain early with good underground moisture. Prospects looked good in April for 120 bushels per acre.

He cut back a bit on fertility in dryland cotton and corn, saving a little money on higher nutrient prices.

“Soil samples indicate I still have adequate carryover so it will not hurt this year,” he says. “I made no change in irrigated cotton, and the corn is growing well.” Chopelas says he’s learned a lot about crop needs through two years of verification trials and he “might do one more year.”

Stapper says he implemented verification trials to answer producer requests for more assistance regarding best management practices with center pivot irrigation systems.

“The research verification trials represent an interdisciplinary effort of farmers, county Extension agent, Extension specialists, and researchers committed to improving profitability of irrigated crops,” he says.

“We began working on this concept in the fall of 2003.” Objectives include:

— Verify research-based recommendations for profitable irrigated cotton, corn, and grain sorghum in the Coastal Bend of Texas.

— Develop an economic analysis of all aspects of irrigated crop production.

— Demonstrate that consistently high yields of corn, cotton, and grain sorghum can be produced economically with the use of available technology and inputs, provided the weather cooperates.

— Identify specific problems and opportunities for irrigated crop production for further investigation.

— Promote timely cultural and best management practices among Coastal Bend farmers.

“We are currently in the second growing season with trials in cotton, corn, and grain sorghum,” Stapper says.

e-mail: rsmith@primediabusiness.com