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Farm sustainability a story worth tellingFarm sustainability a story worth telling

Dahlen Hancock is adding new conservation wrinkles to what his ancestors practiced.

Ron Smith 1

April 22, 2014

11 Min Read
<p>THREE GENERATIONS of Hancocks, Dahlen, Donald and Matt, on the Lynn County, Texas, cotton and grain farm near New Home. Counting Matt and his older brother Zach Walker, the family has farmed in the area since 1919.</p>

Dahlen Hancock can trace his agricultural legacy back three generations—to his great grandfather who was farming from the Lynn County, Texas, town of Wilson back in 1919. His grandfather moved his family to New Home, Texas, around 1941 and bought 200 acres of land with an FHA loan.

Dahlen (Day lin)is the fourth generation to farm Lynn County soil and credits lessons learned and passed down from his predecessors for instilling in him a conservation ethic that he hopes to pass along to the fifth generation to work the farm—his sons Matt Hancock and Zach Walker.

“My grandfather came through the Depression,” Hancock said on a windy, dusty day in early April that underscored the importance of his commitment to do everything possible to preserve the natural resources that have persisted for three generations and counting.

He said his grandfather, D.W. Hancock, and father, Donald, now 77 and retired, practiced soil stewardship as a routine procedure. During the Depression and the drought-plagued years that accompanied it, Dahlen’s forebears used what they knew to hold soil in place. “They did a lot of terracing,” Hancock said. Conserving resources became part and parcel of how they managed the farm. “My dad was named SCS (now NRCS) conservationist of the year in 1986,” he said. “He also built a lot of terraces and moved a lot of dirt.”

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Dahlen is adding new wrinkles to what his ancestors practiced. New technology, a more thorough understanding of soil dynamics and better cropping systems offer new opportunities. Residue management is a key ingredient for Hancock’s operation.

“I’m trying to get to a reduced tillage system,” he said. That means rotation, a practice he admits is much needed. “I am committed to adding grain to my cropping program. I can’t stay with cotton, cotton, cotton and cotton on the same fields. I need rotation to give something back to the land.”

Milo and corn are playing increasingly important roles to put more residue and more organic matter in the soil.

He planted about 540 acres of corn last year—one full pivot and several half-circles. “I even bought a combine, and I’m glad I did,” he said. Corn is a relatively new enterprise for the area. “Typically, corn is part of the crop mix north of Lubbock,” he said. “South of Lubbock we haven’t grown much corn, but with new drought tolerant hybrids, we can make it work.”

The combine gives him a bit more incentive to mix cotton and grain. “I’m planting more half-circles, too, half cotton and half milo or corn. I keep the stubble; I have to leave it on the ground.”

Moving away from tillage takes time, he said. “But I’m committed to it; it’s important to the farm. I’m not where I want to be yet, and I still have a lot to learn.”

He has some education to do with landlords as well. “I farm a lot of rented land and it’s sometimes hard to convince landlords to reduce cotton acreage and switch to milo. Cotton has always been king here.”

Making progress

He’s making progress. “Some land owners are starting to see that we can do things differently.” Higher grain prices in recent years also made rotation options more acceptable, but that’s subject to change with volatile markets.

“I’m trying to be a good steward,” he said. “I’m just not there yet. It’s hard to get past tradition. My grandfather always wanted to clean-till the fields and he wanted to harvest every lock of lint. My dad started to change and began to realize that we don’t need perfectly clean fields. Now, we’re leaving more crop residue on the land.”

Hancock had no residue to hold soil in some fields last summer following failed cotton, so he “busted it deep and planted Sudan in the middles. I’ll plant cotton on the clean bed. The Sudan got up to about three feet tall before a freeze killed it. It helped hold the soil. I have been pleased with the way residue held the soil in place this spring when the wind blew.”

Just before the freeze Hancock applied 2, 4-D to clean up summer weeds. He also may apply a burndown herbicide before planting.  “I’ll apply Treflan this spring and plant,” he said. “That’s all I’ll do to it.”

On this warm, blustery April day, Hancock pointed out the stark difference between clean-tilled ground with dust sometimes obscuring the view of equipment or irrigation systems and fields with old crop residue and no rolling clouds of dust.

Water is and will be the primary limiting factor for crop production in this typically arid West Texas climate. Hancock says wells are diminishing. “We can’t water everything like we used to, so we have to scale back,” he said.

He has several options. Half circles, part in cotton and part in milo, allow him to concentrate water on   the cotton and perhaps use just enough on the grain to get it to harvest. “If it doesn’t rain this year, I’ll consider not watering the half with grain sorghum and concentrate on the cotton.”

He also reconfigures his irrigation systems and cotton planting patterns. A four-and-one, two-and- one skip row pattern allows him to cut off irrigation nozzles above the gaps. He reduces cotton under the pivot by 25 percent. “Instead of 120 acres I’ll water only 90 acres,” he explained. “Also, by cutting off those specific nozzles I get pressure out to the end of the pivot.”

Technology, Hancock said, allows him to be more efficient, more productive and more protective of the environment. Technology, he said, allows him to farm more acres more efficiently. “My grandfather made a living on 1,300 acres,” he said. “My dad farmed 2,000 to 2,500. Now, we farm more to be as efficient.” He’s currently farming 6,500 acres.

He said his father could buy a tractor for $50,000. A machine used today to do the same chores, but with more horsepower to pull bigger, heavier implements, would be $150,000 to $200,000. A cotton stripper runs about $230,000. Commodity prices have not improved enough to bridge the gap, so the economy of scale means more acreage and higher yields.

“We save time and labor with herbicide resistant crops,” he said. But he’s concerned about the growing threat of herbicide resistant weeds, especially Palmer amaranth.

“With technology, we handle almost everything with a spray rig after we plant,” he said. “And after using this technology for the last 15 to 20 years, we’ve gotten used to it, but we are concerned about resistant weeds.

Back to basics

“We have a generation of young farmers who don’t know how to farm like we used to, with yellow herbicides and cultivation. We may need to do more tillage to handle resistance problems. Hooded sprayers may also be useful again.”

His resistance problems have been minor, so far. “We never got away from using yellow herbicides, except where we planted wheat as a cover crop. That’s where we see most resistance issues.”

Weed management is one factor he’s looking at as he ponders whether to transition to a complete no-till system. “The big question with no-till will be ‘can I control the weeds?’” he said.

Drought remains his top concern, however. Next is how the new farm law will affect his operation. “Will it still provide the safety net we need? I’m not sure. We will know more after the first year.”

Weed resistance comes in third. “We’re trying to get a handle on it and learn from the experience they’ve had in the Southeast and the Mid-south.”

He thinks his rotation options will help with weed control. “We have products available for corn and grain sorghum that do a good job,” he said.

He had some early concerns that multiple crops would add multiple levels of management and trouble switching from managing one crop to another.  “I was afraid we would have a nightmare with several crops and different products and different application timing. But it wasn’t so bad. We actually have fewer acres to manage at one time.”

He looks for new products in chemical and seed company pipelines to continue to improve farm efficiency. “Technology in the pipeline will keep us going,” he said. “And we have to adopt it. If my grandfather and my father had not adopted the new technology available in their time, we would not be here today. We have to be willing to accept change.”

He also, perhaps surprisingly, says farmers have to accept regulation. “Regulation in the United States is often burdensome and troublesome,” he said. “But it assures us that we have the safest food supply.”

Hancock has devoted himself to managing a sustainable farm and is proud of what he has accomplished, even as he strives to do more.

Spokesman for U.S farmers

He recently shared his stewardship philosophy at The COTTON USA Brand and Retailer Leadership Summit in Berlin, Germany, a meeting of leaders from top brands, retailers and sourcing companies in the textile industry. He spoke on “Responsible Cotton Production.”

He explained how modern cotton farmers not only produce high quality cotton fiber but how they do it sustainably. He shared his PowerPoint presentation with Southwest Farm Press. In that presentation, he noted:

“We live on the farm.  We drink the water from beneath the soil.  We grow a garden that helps put food on our table. Kids play in the fields.  This was my grandfather’s home and I fully expect my grandchildren and their children to call this home.

“So what are we doing to help ensure the sustainability of our farming operation?”

He explained his rotation system, the importance of soil samples to make certain crops get nutrients they need but not too much. “We must be good stewards of the water and soil.” 

He explained the water deficit conditions of West Texas farming and how he manages water as efficiently as possible. He described his integrated pest management approach to insect, disease and weed control.

Hancock explained the role that regulatory agencies play in conserving natural resources and maintaining a safe, abundant food and fiber supply. He’s proud of the wildlife habitat he sees on his and surrounding farms and showed photos of mule deer on the farm and Canada geese that “chose Lubbock” as a place to overwinter about 15 years ago. “The geese inhabit the playa lakes and feed in the grain fields,” he said.

Family values

He explained the importance of family, not only his immediate family—his son Matt and wife Kacy; the older son Zach, who farms on his own, and his wife Melissa; Dahlen’s dad Donald and mom Joyce; his wife Jody and his sister Donette Case, a banker who manages his books (“very well”)—but also the employees, many of whom have worked on the farm for many years. “They are like family, too,” he said.

Along with his text, Hancock showed photos of his farm, his family in the fields, his garden, the wildlife.

He closed with a photo of his granddaughter and said: “When I talk about family, I have to share a picture of my granddaughter, Cora Elin Hancock, the most important reason to be the safest and most responsible steward I can be.  I am blessed to farm and to serve as the caretaker of this patch of earth not only for my grandchildren but future generations as well.”

Hancock made the talk as a representative of Cotton Council International, for which he serves as first vice president. He also serves as secretary for Cotton Incorporated. The opportunity was part of Cotton LEADS, a program that, according to the website (http://www.cottonleads.org/), is “committed to responsible cotton production and is founded on core principles that are consistent with sustainability, the use of best practices and traceability in the supply chain. This joint program, initiated by Australia and the United States, offers manufacturers, brands and retailers a reliable cotton supply chain solution and confidence that their raw material is responsibly produced and identified.”

Hancock credits family and faithful employees for his ability to serve his industry and to take advantage of opportunities like the Summit. “I know that when I’m away, I have the right people in place to do the job and to understand the technology.”

Sustainability is a journey, not a destination for farmers, Agricultural…

Hancock says the sustainability message is an important one for farmers to tell. “Social media may be a useful tool.  It’s the best way to reach the younger generation as well as the general public.”

He said he’s becoming more comfortable in front of non-farm groups and is proud to be a spokesman for something his family has revered for four generations—stewardship.

Hancock says his farm and his story are not unique. “Farmers all across the Cotton Belt practice stewardship,” he said. “Those who did not are probably no longer farming. Conservation is too important to ignore.”

Sustainability may be the new buzzword, the phrase that popular culture wants to bandy about to describe what they believe to be an ideal farmstead. But farmers like Dahlen Hancock, his grandfather, his father and his sons, understand better than anyone what sustainability, stewardship and conservation entail.

It’s the ability to withstand a Great Depression, a Dust bowl, droughts, hail storms and vagaries of market economics and still manage to hand over a profitable  piece of ground to the next generation in better condition than it was handed down from the previous one. That’s a story worth telling. And Dahlen Hancock tells it well.


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About the Author(s)

Ron Smith 1

Senior Content Director, Farm Press/Farm Progress

Ron Smith has spent more than 40 years covering Sunbelt agriculture. Ron began his career in agricultural journalism as an Experiment Station and Extension editor at Clemson University, where he earned a Masters Degree in English in 1975. He served as associate editor for Southeast Farm Press from 1978 through 1989. In 1990, Smith helped launch Southern Turf Management Magazine and served as editor. He also helped launch two other regional Turf and Landscape publications and launched and edited Florida Grove and Vegetable Management for the Farm Press Group. Within two years of launch, the turf magazines were well-respected, award-winning publications. Ron has received numerous awards for writing and photography in both agriculture and landscape journalism. He is past president of The Turf and Ornamental Communicators Association and was chosen as the first media representative to the University of Georgia College of Agriculture Advisory Board. He was named Communicator of the Year for the Metropolitan Atlanta Agricultural Communicators Association. More recently, he was awarded the Norman Borlaug Lifetime Achievement Award by the Texas Plant Protection Association. Smith also worked in public relations, specializing in media relations for agricultural companies. Ron lives with his wife Pat in Johnson City, Tenn. They have two grown children, Stacey and Nick, and three grandsons, Aaron, Hunter and Walker.

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