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Burns battles to farm cotton cheaper

Daniel Burns, manager of San Juan Ranch, Dos Palos, Calif., sees a long, uncertain road ahead for California cotton producers.

Having just returned from the National Cotton Council (NCC) annual meeting, Burns told growers and Pest Control Advisers at the recent Bayer CropScience cotton technology seminar that “government (farm) programs are going away. There are a lot of changes ahead.” That is not the official industry line as the NCC and others lobby to preserve as much of the current farm bill as possible. However, many producers are convinced support for farm programs in Congress and the Bush Administration is waning under the weight of a huge federal deficit. Federal farm programs as growers now know them are targeted for cuts or major changes as never before.

Bottom line for Burns is if he is to continue producing 2,000 acres of cotton each year in the northern San Joaquin Valley, he must find a way to farm cheaper.

He has. He has reduced conventional tillage cost by at least 50 percent using minimum tillage producing cotton in 15-inch rows. However, he finds himself unable to capture that savings at least this season because of problems he encountered spindle harvesting it last season.

Compare systems

San Juan Ranch, John Deere and the University California teamed up to launch a research project comparing three production systems at the Merced County, Calif., farm. Last year cotton planted in conventional 30-inch single rows; two rows on a 30-inch bed and in rows spaced just 15 inches apart were compared.

The focal point of the test was reduced tillage cost, and Burns achieved that. It cost about $51 per acre less to grow twin-row 30-inch cotton versus conventional single row 30s and about $80 less for tillage on 15-inch cotton versus since row cotton rows spaced 30 inches apart.

“It is all about saving labor, fuel, and equipment costs,” said Burns. “Every farmer knows where the costs of fuel and fertilizers are going.”

San Juan is a diversified farming operation producing alfalfa, processing tomatoes and peppers as well as cotton, and Burns is focusing on reducing tillage cost in all crops.

One way he is doing that is with a multiple-tasking tillage tool called an Eliminator. It is a $55,000 implement that takes a 450-horsepower tractor to pull, but it is quickly paying for itself replacing five or six passes through the field with small implements with one or two passes.

Burns makes one pass with the Eliminator after harvest; chisels and comes back again with the Eliminator. He also applies a pre-plant herbicide with the second pass. That’s it.

He also uses a conservation tillage implement called a Performer on his processing tomato fields. “When we finish a tomato crop, it is shredded, and we run a tool called a Performer 2 and that is it. We are ready to plant.” He can leave 60-inch tomato beds or can split the tomato beds for 30-inch cotton with the Performer. He has run the Performer on drip irrigated tomato fields without damaging the buried irrigation tape.

Lacked GPS

Obviously Burns has moved forward to reduce tillage costs in many areas, but he is stymied at this point enfolding the 15-inch cotton into the farm’s cotton mix because the large 12-row Deere cotton picker brought to the farm as part of the comparison research would not gather the cotton at night. It was not equipped with GPS technology while on Burns’ cotton.

“It was like trying to drive in a straight line down a white table clothe,” he said. Burn’s best picker driver could not see to harvest at night and that unacceptability reduced harvesting efficiency.

“John Deere said they would not come back so I will not plant any 15-inch cotton this year,” he said. The harvester was reportedly sold to J.G. Boswell in Corcoran, Calif., which has also tested the machine to gather Pima cotton.

All of Burns’ cotton is Acala.

Burns is disappointed. “We have got to do more things to cut costs to stay in the cotton business. We try a lot of different things at San Juan and I probably get myself in trouble with some things, but we have no choice but to keep looking for ways to be more efficient,” he said.*

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