Land improvements pay dividends
Consistency and cost-effectiveness are keys to success for Coyt Hendon, and they have helped earn him the 2004 Farm Press High Cotton Award for the Delta Region.
Hendon, who farms 1,000 acres of cotton near Shaw, Miss., consistently produces high yields of high-quality cotton. He also focuses on managing his production input expenses and keeping costs at a minimum — a rule of survival in recent years for cotton growers.
“My 10-year average yield is about 1,000 pounds of lint per acre,” says Hendon. “Some of our cotton picked 1,300 pounds this past year, and some picked less, but we maintained an average yield of about 1,000 pounds per acre.”
Hendon owns 650 acres and leases another 350 acres, with all but about 75 acres of his farmland under irrigation. In addition to his cropland, Hendon manages about 60 acres of woods for wildlife, primarily deer populations. To better manage production expenses and improve irrigation efficiency, he is precision land-leveling his cotton acreage on a field-by-field basis.
“We land-form a field or two each year during the winter months to improve drainage and lessen runoff, both from soil erosion and pesticide applications. Considering that the entire farm is located on Porter Bayou, the soil and irrigation water would run straight into the bayou if it could. We’re doing everything we can to make sure that doesn’t happen,” he says.
Hendon’s efforts at improving his land apparently are paying dividends. “It’s easier for us to water the land-leveled fields, and we now use less water to irrigate our cotton. Hopefully, the improvements we’re making to the land will continue to increase our water conservation, while still providing the water needed to produce consistently high yielding cotton. We’ve definitely seen less sediment runoff from our fields,” he says.
Hendon plants his cotton during the third or fourth week of April or the first week of May, but still doesn’t think he’s planting quite early enough. “I’d like to get in the fields and get the cottonseed in the ground even earlier. There are numerous benefits to planting earlier. For one, it would allow us to harvest cotton quicker before the undesirable weather comes in. Planting early can really made a difference, especially in recent years when the Delta experienced extremely wet fall weather conditions. Thank goodness we had a dry fall in 2003, and planting date wasn’t nearly as big an issue.”
This past year, Hendon planted Stoneville 4892, a stacked-gene variety with early- to mid-season maturity. It was his second year of planting a Roundup Ready variety. “I really like the convenience of Roundup Ready cotton. We don’t have to make nearly as many trips across the field. And, as far as the cost goes, our technology fees combined with the cost of Roundup is about equal to what we would normally spend in herbicide and application costs on conventional cotton.”
The Bt technology is also helpful, he says, but he did have to spray his 2003 cotton crop five times for plant bugs. Despite necessary insecticide applications like the ones he was forced to make to control heavy plant bug pressure, Hendon says he carefully manages all herbicide, insecticide and herbicide costs on his farm, always striving to get the most bang for his buck.
Hendon has successfully marketed his cotton both independently and through the Staple Cotton cooperative marketing pool, which has enabled him to maintain acceptable profit margins even during times of low prices. “I’ve really been satisfied with Staple Cotton, and I’ll be in their marketing pool until I die. They do a good job each year.”
Grower protecting, improving land
It’s not enough to simply protect the land you’re farming — you also need to make it better. That’s the guiding philosophy of Billy Sanders, the 2004 Farm Press High Cotton Award winner from the Southeast Region.
“Environmental stewardship is vitally important to our farming operation,” says Sanders, a fourth generation farmer of the same south Georgia fields, who along with his son Johnny and nephew David farms 2,900 acres of cotton and 750 acres of peanuts in Dooly County, Ga. Another 4,000 acres is in pine trees.
“If we don’t do whatever we can to protect the land — not only protect it, but make it better — there will be nothing to leave our children and grandchildren,” he says. “Working with the Soil and Water District, I’ve recognized that a lot of political things come into play. But I think we should tie everything together for the benefit of both the farmer and the environment.”
Sanders is recognized as a Georgia pioneer in the use of conservation-tillage and cover crops. His entire cotton and peanut crops are strip-tilled, planted into heavy cover crop residue. Sanders is working with wheat and triticale as cover crops, and he has come to prefer triticale.
In 2002, Sanders’ highest yielding cotton was planted behind triticale. “Our irrigated, full-season cotton in 2002 looked very good and appeared to have good potential, but boll rot was very damaging. The cotton was trying to open at a time that didn’t work for us. But with the cotton planted behind triticale, we had good weather when the cotton was opening, and we made a little more than 1,300 pounds per acre. The other cotton made from 1,000 to 1,150 pounds per acre.”
Triticale ordinarily can be harvested by May 15, says Sanders. “We harvest just enough cover crop for our seed. The remainder is burned down. We do some of our strip-till prior to burn down to allow the cover crop to mature. It also helps us to spread our workload.” The majority of Sanders’ farmland is not irrigated, by necessity. “Ideally, we’d like to have big fields that are shaped to accommodate a pivot system. But we don’t, and we’re not going to change the shape of our fields. We have to play the hand that was dealt to us. We have put a lot of our short rows and corners into pine trees.”
He began planting strip-till cotton in the early 1980s. “Our first objective when planting cotton is to have maturity in the cover crop. And maturity means having residue that will last. Some growers are making a terrible mistake by terminating their cover crop too early. They burn it down before it’s ever booted out. They might have done themselves some good, but the residue won’t stay on the ground. We have residue on the ground throughout the season.”
Roundup Ready cotton, says Sanders, has worked well with his conservation-tillage system. “I’m hoping we’ll have other options real soon — options that’ll be economical. Spraying over-the-top and stopping at the four-leaf stage doesn’t give us all we really need. I hope we’ll have other choices that’ll help us with different weed problems.”
Con-till proves worth in dry Texas
Ernest Bippert says the yield difference between conventional and conservation till cotton may be a wash in wet years, but during dry growing seasons, which are more common than not in south Texas, con-till makes more cotton.
His commitment to conservation tillage, moisture management and technology help Bippert save soil, water, time and money on his 2,000-acre cotton and milo farm near Kingsville, Texas. That formula also earned him the 2004 Southwest Farm Press High Cotton Award.
“I had heard that conservation tillage in fields with mixed soil types would be a disaster,” Bippert said. “But I talked with a farmer who had used conservation tillage for years and he convinced me that following a prescription for reducing tillage would work.”
That prescription includes maintaining the same seedbed and following the same traffic pattern to prevent compaction in the furrow. He’s planted on the same stale seedbed for three years. “I pull stalks and have found that cotton plants develop a deep root system in con-till systems. I reshape the beds in the fall and run a v-ripper in the furrow to loosen up the soil.”
Bippert said weeds are no more trouble in conservation tillage than with conventional. “I take care of winter weeds with Roundup and Aim, usually in late December. I plant in March and like to be finished by early April.”
In season, Roundup takes care of most weeds. “All my cotton is Roundup Ready,” he said. “That technology makes conservation tillage so much easier. I can go over the top early and then I use a hooded sprayer to clean up middles.”
He’s also found the hooded sprayer and Roundup helpful in his rotation crop, grain sorghum, “to clean up the middles. But I can’t get underneath the sorghum plant.” He’s looking at paraquat, labeled for grain sorghum use. “I tried it on 20 acres and within two days the weeds were burned down. That’s really an advantage with milo. I might burn the bottom foliage a little but I haven’t seen enough damage to affect yields.” He said Texas panicum is the chief weed pest. Early control helps. “During the early stages of growth, one-half pint of paraquat is probably adequate.” Bippert said Texas panicum is the reason farmers in his area cultivate. “But with conservation tillage, we clean the middles with the hooded sprayer.”
Cost comparisons for conventional and conservation tillage systems “used to be a wash,” Bippert said, “with labor savings and chemical expenses balancing out.”
But long-term, he’s convinced conservation tillage will save him money. “Consider equipment. I put 300 hours a year on a big tractor in conservation tillage. I’d put 1,000 hours on that same tractor with conventional production. When I trade that tractor, it will be worth more money.
“Also, I’m not buying sweeps and not buying as much diesel. I don’t run a field cultivator. I can use labor for other chores. I have more leisure time to spend with my family. I don’t have wind erosion and if I’m not cutting production, I’m ahead. Conservation tillage is definitely an advantage.”
He’s using furrow dikes to conserve water. “Those dikes can be inconvenient at harvest.” He said the Texas Extension Service got him interested in furrow dikes several years ago. “I did a yield test five years ago, comparing furrow dikes to level middles. Depending on rainfall amounts, the furrow dikes averaged from 50 pounds to 200 pounds more cotton per acre. Other years the increase ranged from 50 to 75 pounds.”
Family sets standards for farming
Few San Joaquin Valley cotton producers are as passionate about agriculture as Fred Starrh. His fervor is so unbridled, it is often misunderstood. University of California Extension Cotton Specialist Bob Hutmacher says arguing a differing viewpoint than held by the 74-year-old Shafter, Calif., cotton grower “can make you think Fred hates your guts — and then when it all over he says, let’s go get a hamburger.”
Starrh chuckled at that description, admitting that he can seem “overbearing” at times, but he makes no apology for his viewpoints or his profession as a San Joaquin Valley cotton farmer for more than a half century.
Starrh admits to more than a few “pretty heated discussions” over the years, but “I would hope that when they were over, we were still friends. Different viewpoints are what make this industry work. It’s part of the process.”
Farming is Fred’s lifestyle, and he will do whatever he can in any arena to protect and advance a way of life he cherishes.
Fred’s father came to the valley in 1936 to grow cotton on a 30-acre cotton farm in Kern County. Fred’s oldest son now lives on that farm. Later he partnered with his father and now Fred, his two sons Fred Jr. and Larry, daughters Carol Kroeker and her husband Jay and Ann Ashley farm 12,000 acres as a family partnership, Starrh and Starrh Cotton Growers, on the West Side of Kern County, Calif.
They grow about 6,000 acres of cotton with the rest of the farm in 2,100 acres of alfalfa, 280 acres of pistachios, 1,600 acres of almonds and 30 acres of carrots.
The Starrh family is this year’s Farm Press/Cotton Foundation Far West High Cotton Award winner, nominated by their peers for decades of leadership in agriculture, the cotton industry and in production agriculture.
Involvement and the name Starrh are synonymous. It would take pages to list the organizations Fred and his sons have served both in California and nationally. “I have always been aware of the fact that to have an impact you have to be involved the process,” said Fred.
Time away from a farm for industry involvement could take a toll between the turn rows, but that is not the case for Starrh and Starrh Cotton Growers. They are leaders there as well. That is why the Starrh Family was nominated and selected for this year’s High Cotton award for the production region of California and Arizona.
Farming is challenging everywhere today, but no more so than in California where environmental restraints are the most onerous anywhere and resources like water and land are growing more scarce each day in a state of more than 32 million people rapidly on its way to 50 million within the next two decades.
The Starrhs are meeting challenges head on by:
- Paving 33 miles of roads on their farm with an oil-sand compound to reduce dust.
- Converting older diesel engine pumps to cleaner burning models to reduce pollution.
- Installing drip irrigation exclusively for cotton production to reduce water use and to utilize well water as a replacement for increasingly tenuous surface water deliveries.
- Utilizing soil moisture sensors to fine tune irrigation scheduling and maximizing water use.
- Developing innovative, reduced tillage systems to cover more acreage with fewer passes.
In the High Cotton nomination package, the Starrh family was cited for “the level of commitment to Western cotton production, on-farm accomplishments and environmental stewardship the High Cotton award strives to recognize.
“The Starrhs have established new standards for California from their farming practices and from their leadership roles in California agriculture,” said Bruce Roberts, University of California Cooperative Extension county director in Kings County who led the team which nominated the Starrhs.
The Starrhs have successfully maintained and even increased cotton yields while reducing inputs and meeting environmental standards unlike anywhere in the U.S. This year the Starrhs averaged 3 bales on upland varieties, including the ultra premium Acala from California Planting Cotton Seed Distributors,’ Ultima, which is roller ginned and brings a 10 cents per pound premium over other saw-ginned Acalas. Their Pima yields averaged 2.7 bales.
Fred Starrh is one of the most research-committed producers. He has played a key role in reshaping the USDA-ARS research team at the Shafter Research Center and is an unabashed supporter of genetically modified crops. The Starrh farm is a frequent site for UC and federal research projects.