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Clint Abernathy adopts latest technology to boost cotton

Clint Abernathy hasn't just accepted technology. He's embraced it. Drip irrigation, GPS, reduced tillage and transgenic cotton varieties help Abernathy and sons Justin and Jarod improve efficiency on their Altus, Okla., cotton and wheat farm.

They're trying to make the best crops possible with a sometimes limited water supply on land that's prone to blow in the spring and damage seedling cotton. Abernathy's attention to soil and water conservation, adoption of efficient technology and consistent production history has earned him the 2008 High Cotton Award for the Southwest region.

“We do anything we can to become more efficient,” Abernathy says.

He and his sons irrigate 2,400 acres of cotton and grow another 1,800 dryland. “About one-third of the irrigated cotton is no-till,” Abernathy says. He still uses furrow irrigation on some fields and that system requires tillage. “We have to create and maintain the water furrows,” he says.

But conservation-tillage works well with drip irrigation and center pivots. “The only problem we've had the last few years with no-till in irrigated fields is volunteer cotton. We've had to cultivate to get rid of it. Other than that, we've not plowed it.”

He says 95 percent of their dryland cotton is no-till. He uses minimum-till on about 5,700 acres of wheat. “We're doing a lot less tillage on wheat than we used to,” he says.

He plants some cotton right behind the wheat combine, using the wheat stubble to hold soil moisture and to protect cotton seedlings from blowing sand. “I also plant into cotton stalks.”

He shreds the old stalks after harvest and leaves them over the winter to protect the soil. “I cut them a bit higher than I used to for more protection from blowing sand. Those standing stalks provide a huge advantage. We have a lot of potential for wind damage in this part of the country.”

He says damage is particularly bad when a hard rain falls shortly after planting. “The ground gets hard and when winds come they blow soil and injure the little cotton.” Planting in stubble, either wheat or cotton, limits the damage.

Cotton behind wheat pushes seeding into June. “That's within the typical period we plant dryland cotton,” Abernathy says. He can plant earlier than he used to because of the Boll Weevil Eradication Program.

“That has changed the way we grow cotton,” he says. “We did not use to plant late because of the weevil. Without the weevil we have a lot more leeway.” Abernathy has not seen a boll weevil in several years.

He has 530 acres of cotton on drip irrigation and plans to install another 300 acres for the 2008 season. He irrigates 240 acres with center pivots. The rest of his irrigated land is row-watered. He's cut down on tillage in furrow-irrigated fields.

Yields for drip irrigation have not surpassed other irrigation methods yet, Abernathy says. “I've only used drip for three years.” He says drip did not produce his best cotton last year. But last year was dry. “We started off dry and that's not a good thing for drip,” he says.

Altus-area farmers irrigate from a lake and water allocations are based on lake levels. Last summer, allocation was meager. “We really didn't have enough water to make a crop,” he says. “We started out behind and that's a negative with drip irrigation.”

Drip yields the year before were about equal to other irrigated cotton. He expected drip irrigated fields to produce some of his best cotton in 2007. “But irrigating with drip is like starting all over. It's a learning experience and is a lot different from row watering.”

Lake level throughout the growing season was more than adequate and Abernathy expected good yields from the 2007 crop. If rainfall patterns are normal this winter, irrigation water will be adequate again next summer.

He says drip systems use water efficiently. “We'll use less water to make a bale of cotton. It saves labor, too. Moving siphon pipes for furrow irrigation takes a lot of man-hours.

Global positioning system technology also saves Abernathy time and labor. “We used GPS to lay out the drip systems,” he says. “Lines are always placed where they're supposed to be.”

It helps in other areas as well. They use GPS on tractors and sprayers. “It is much more efficient, especially in odd-shaped fields,” he says.

“We can see exactly where we've been. We eliminate a lot of overlapping when we spray or plant. GPS will become more common.”

He says GPS data helps analyze management and production in-season or after harvest.

“We get an exact date and time and can see exactly what we did in the field,” he says. “That's valuable information.”

He's looking into grid sampling to improve fertilizer placement.

“With the high cost of fertilizer, it makes sense,” he says.

Better varieties have helped Abernathy farm more efficiently. He uses all Roundup Ready and Bollgard II varieties. They planted a lot of Flex cotton this past year. “Most everything was Flex except Fiber-Max 960.

“I had good luck with that cotton before and planted it on drip-irrigated fields. I used a hooded sprayer and weed control was good.”

He said selecting varieties was tough last year.

“We have a lot of Flex varieties available, but we didn't have really good information on performance from the previous year.

“With a drought, it wasn't a good year to test new varieties.”

He planted several, including: DPL 143 and 164; Stoneville 4554 and 4357; Phytogen 485; and Paymaster 2140. He also planted some NexGen 3273 and Stoneville 4700 on dryland acres. “Those look good.”

He says Flex cotton is a good tool. “Morningglory has become our worst weed problem and Flex helps control it. It takes higher doses of Roundup to kill morningglory, but it does kill it.” He also likes the flexibility to apply Roundup later in the season.

Horseweed was a “key problem last year, especially in no-till cotton,” Abernathy says. He's not certain he's dealing with resistance but says the weed has been hard to kill with Roundup.

“We have to change our philosophy on managing horseweed next season. The key is to get it early. A lot comes up in March and we can hit it with 2,4-D and then add a shot of Roundup when the weeds are small. It they get some size on them, they are hard to kill.”

Roundup Ready cotton has simplified dryland cotton production, Abernathy says. “It's a pretty simple crop to grow now. We have fewer insect pests (thanks to BWEP and BGII) and fewer weed problems with Roundup Ready cotton.”

He says without the boll weevil program, cotton behind wheat would “not even be an option. Most of that cotton makes in September.”

Eradication, he says, adds about a half-bale per acre to cotton yields.

He had few insect problems this past year. “We had more aphids than usual, but perhaps we were a bit too aggressive with fleahopper control.” Pesticides used to kill fleahoppers may have taken out beneficials and “triggered aphids,” he says. “I'll need to be a little more patient and maybe stop (fleahopper control) a little earlier.”

He said spider mites almost reached control threshold. “They didn't quite get there but they got close and they are expensive to control.”

He says without boll weevil and bollworm infestations secondary pests are emerging. “We have to change the way we manage insect control,” he says.

Abernathy's management system includes adaptability, like taking advantage of technology as it becomes available and affordable. When GPS first came out, he says, it made little economic sense for farmers to adopt it. As it evolved, and costs moderated, the technology found a place on more and more farms.

“Technology came along at the right time to keep us in business,” he says. But technology needs to evolve, too. “When we get rid of one problem, another shows up,” he says. And as innovations come along, he'll gauge how well they'll work into his system and how change can increase his bottom line. We just try to produce the best crop we can.”

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