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2011 “biggest nightmare ever” for Texas cotton farmer

Jonathan James says the 2011 crop season was “the biggest nightmare I’ve ever seen. We can’t assume that we’ll have another year like it.”

So James, who farms near Floydada, Texas, didn’t change his production program much as he planted cotton back in May. “I did say after last year I wouldn’t do the same things again, but I did. I pre-watered to get the crop up.”

James says conditions were dry at planting time but not as dry as they were the year before. “We got about 2 inches of rain over the winter but only three-tenths total since March. Some fields only got six-one hundreths of an inch. We need more.”

But planting has gone more smoothly than last year, when farmers in the Texas High Plains had to battle high winds, high temperatures and no moisture. “We had more winter moisture this year,” James says, “so the soil is mellow, and planting has gone much better.

“We don’t need a lot of rain to make irrigated cotton in West Texas, but we do need some.” He irrigates about 60 percent of his acreage, 900 out of 1650 acres of cotton. A good part of that, 547 acres, is in subsurface drip.

Some of his drip-irrigated cotton did well last year. “One field received three rain showers, about 2 inches total, and made about 1,400 pounds,” he says. “Other fields that missed those rains made only about 600 pounds.” Irrigation water availability for the fields was about the same, 3.25 gallons per acre.

He says 2008 and 2009 were also dry years but drip irrigated cotton did very well. “I thought 2011 would be similar, but we got no rain at all.”

Too Hot

He says some of last year’s drip-irrigated fields showed burned leaves in July. “It got so hot some bolls cracked.”

He had all his 2012 irrigated acreage planted by late May and “almost all of it was up.” He was just beginning to plant dryland cotton and was not hopeful. “I have hope for this year’s irrigated crop,” he says, “but not much for dryland. It will have to keep raining all summer to make a dryland crop.”

He says he invested more money in dryland cotton early than he did last year. “With winter moisture I put on Treflan and planted. He planned to seed 27,800 seed per dryland acre. “I would plant less but RMA says we have to have one seed every 6 inches.”

Irrigated planting rate is 43,700 seed per acre. “I went up last year to 52, 000,” he says. “I had trouble planting but it was a bad idea. I should have cut back.” He planted FiberMax 2484 and 9170 on irrigated acres and FM 2011 GlyTol on dryland.

He’s not changing his fertility program—yet. “We applied a 40-60-0-50(S) pre-plant on irrigated acres,” he says. “But if we have no rain by June 20, we will not put more nitrogen through the drip systems. We did that last year—used a full fertilizer program—and wasted a lot of money.”

James altered his plant spacing slightly several years ago with drip and pivot irrigation. “I use a 30-inch/50-inch pattern. That gives each row equal access to moisture.”

His drip tape is spaced at 80-inch intervals. He plants cotton rows 30 inches apart and has a 50-inch middle. “We still have everything set on 40-inch centers,” he says, “but we scoop the planter bottom in about 5 inches on each side.”

He says each cotton plant has access to moisture from the drip tape. “It also helps with shading.”

He’s used this spacing for two years, 2010 and 2011. “We got 15 inches of rain in July of 2010,” he says. “And last year we got none. So we still have not had a good test of the system, but the theory is that we get better moisture distribution. We know that it helps with emergence in the drip fields, and we think it shades the rows faster.”

Pivots are also set up to deliver water between the rows on that same pattern.

Certified solid

James says he had some difficulty getting the system certified as solid planting. At first there were questions whether it constituted skip-row cotton or solid seeded. “Shawn Wade, with Plains Cotton Growers, helped get it settled,” he says. It is considered solid cotton.

He’s trying other means of stretching water, too. He grows some wheat and occasionally sunflowers for seed. “I didn’t plant any sunflowers this year.” All but a few acres of his wheat was “zeroed out and some rated as 1 bushel per acre.”

He has at times planted a wheat cover crop and then planted cotton into wheat straw. “I don’t do a lot of that. I don’t have land with adequate water to use on a cover crop. But I like a wheat rotation. I can harvest wheat and fallow the land then plant cotton the following spring.”

He also has some half-sections with two pivot systems. “I may leave one pivot out one year on the fallow land and then rotate back and forth.”

James has farmed on his own since 2003. “This is my tenth crop,” he says, “and I’ve had more good years than bad ones, so I can’t complain. And some of the good ones did not look promising early on.

“I had never seen a bad year that was actually worse than I thought it would be.” Until last year, which was much worse than he expected. “I expect to make at least two bales on drip irrigation. Last year, almost none of it made that much.”

He says making it through last year gives him “a little bit of hope. I survived. I got a stand of cotton on every acre of irrigated land, and I stripped all my irrigated cotton.” One field, he says, was questionable, but he “stripped it quickly and moved on.

“Some areas have been getting rain as planting winds down, so we think we could begin to get some, too. We’ve had some 80-degree days and some humidity, so we can turn pivots on and off. Last year we did not stop watering cotton and just tried to keep it alive from May through June. “We irrigated for 187 straight days.”

That’s a feat he hopes not to repeat this year.

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