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Cotton grower panelists say: Find balance between cost cuts, returns

Jay Hardwick says a cotton yield monitor could be the key to his profitability. Daniel Burns says his approach to ultra-narrow row cotton is new, yield-enhancing, and surprisingly, harvested with a spindle picker.

Hardwick and Burns were members of a panel of aggressive cotton producers who have found practices and systems that are helping them to balance cost reductions and net returns. The panelists spoke of their experiences at the 2002 Beltwide Cotton Conferences in Atlanta.

“We can't survive by doing to same thing over and over again and expect to prosper,” said Hardwick, a producer from Newellton, La. “It's time for all of us to think about the future of cotton production, and where we are going individually.

“We know we are in a highly competitive environment. We're not going to have cheap land and labor to work with. We're going to have to compete based on new management and new technologies.”

Hardwick believes that farmers need to do more on-farm testing. “New pesticides and seeds are coming and we have to learn how to manage them.

Cost benefit necessary

“But no matter what we explore, they have to have a cost benefit. We have to have yield and quality. The best way to explore our yield is to get a GPS yield monitor. The sum total of our efforts and Nature's efforts is yield. With the yield monitor, we can exactly identify, locate and measure and analyze data to make better decisions.”

Burns, a Dos Palos, Calif., producer, has developed a unique production system he calls California ultra-narrow row cotton. “We grew single-row, 30-inch cotton for 15 years, but decided about four years ago to plant two rows of cotton on a 30-inch bed and call it California UNR cotton.

“What we found was that growing double-row cotton decreased our inputs and increased our yields,” said Burns, who raises about 1,500 to 1,600 acres of cotton, including 700 acres of UNR cotton.

Burns increased yield in UNR cotton by 8 percent over conventional cotton, and also saved $60 per acre less labor and cultivation. He harvests the UNR cotton with a spindle picker.

Comments from other panelists:

Buckeye, Ariz., cotton producer Jerry Rovey has his own approach to UNR cotton, including setting it up with borders for flood irrigation. “We started planting UNR cotton three years ago. The first year we had excellent yield and quality so we decided to work it into a double-crop program with barley.”

Rovey plants cotton on 10-inch centers. The Roundup Ready varieties were planted at a population of 125,000 to 140,000 plants per acre.

“It's important the barley stubble is dead or dying when the cotton is coming up,” he said. “You really need to have the stubble there because the ground will be hard and crusted after the first irrigation.”

Reclaiming soils

“The real value of precision agriculture is doing to the right thing, in the right place at the right time, in the right way,” said Brock Taylor, speaking for California cotton producer Ted Sheely, “We are reclaiming these high sodium soils because we're putting the right amount of gypsum (as a soil amendment) in the right areas. And we're also not spending money where we don't need it.”

Sheely also variable rate or VR applies nitrogen and Pix, which saved the producer about $5 an acre, according to Taylor.

Sheely also uses Beeline auto-guidance systems on his farm. The technology works off satellites and a base station located on the farmer's ranch and is accurate to less than one-inch, according to Taylor. “The system is a real advantage for night application,” he said.

Elk City, Okla., cotton producer Daniel Davis, told attendees that his conversion to no-till, “removes the threat of losing an entire cotton crop to a 30-minute sandstorm. I think no-till has both long-term and short-term benefits. Irrigation is not an option in our area and we have to maximize every drop of rainfall. No-till helps us do that.”

Other benefits include more consistent yields, higher organic matter content, improved soil characteristics and better water infiltration. “The return of earthworms to our farms is proof to some of the positive benefits of no-till farming. We had a farm that in 1982 had three-tenths of a percent organic matter that came back at 2 percent organic matter recently.”

Davis seeds rye in the cotton crop in August. “We try to get the cover crop up and established by harvest to keep the land from blowing.”

The rye grows until early spring and is burned down with Roundup. “We're more concerned about the condition and size of the rye rather than the calendar.”

Davis suggests that growers find an expert to discuss his no-till plan. “You need to have a plan. The biggest single cause of failure that I see is farmers trying it on a 30-acre patch and when the first thing goes wrong, they give up. My advice is to try it on a large enough piece of acreage that it hurts if it doesn't work.”

Drip irrigation

Midland, Texas, cotton producer Jerry Hoelscher is going to drip irrigation to offset the effects of chronic lack of rainfall in the region.

“The drip tapes are 80 inches apart and 13 inches deep. Fertilizer is also applied through the drip system. In our situation, drip irrigation is the answer to today's water conservation issues. I increased yield four years ago 75-80 percent using drip with 18 inches of water.”

Hartsville, S.C., cotton producer Gill Rogers was one of the first producers in his area to irrigate cotton. “I became fascinated by it after seeing it in California. What I saw was that in the West they used their resources better than we did.”

Rogers is looking at drip irrigation because many of his fields are too small for center pivots. “But we never did attain the yields we expected with drip. We had good yields this year, but drip is still in the experimental stage until we can get consistently higher yields.”

All possible savings

Mike Newberry, Arlington, Ga., says growers should consider all cost-saving practices, no matter how small. “When you walk down the street, you don't find too many quarters, nickels and dimes. But you can pick up a few pennies. A lot of times, we look for technologies that can give us those quarters and forget about the pennies we could pick up along the way.”

One way to do this for Newberry is the variable rate application of lime. “We know we can cut our lime costs and end up with a lot less variability. We also are using precision agriculture techniques to variably apply Pix. But you don't need a lot of high tech. We can just use our eyes to judge the height of the crop.”

But Newberry added this caveat about a new technology. “We talk about saving money, but nothing raises the cost of production on our farm any faster than lowering yields. So we have to be careful about what we implement.”

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