The 2019 Farm Press/Cotton Board High Cotton Award winners farm in distinctly different regions, encounter widely varying climates and produce under a range of environmental challenges and regulations.
Yet the winners, representing the Far West, Southwest, Mid-South and Southeast, share some basic production techniques and an overarching commitment to sustainable agriculture.
Cover crops, irrigation efficiency, conservation tillage and adopting technology are common denominators for Steve Stevens, Tillar, Ark., Mid-South Winner; Dahlen Hancock, New Home, Texas, Southwest winner; Cannon Michael, Los Banos, Calif., Western winner; and Frank B. Rogers, III, Bennettsville, S.C., Southeast winner.
Hancock says incorporating sustainable practices will ensure a “farming future for a sixth generation,” on the west Texas farm operation.
“U.S. farmers have a good story to tell,” says Michael. “Manufacturers wanting to market cotton grown with careful, sustainable practices that don’t exploit children or labor in general should look to the U.S. cotton industry for ethical production practices,” he adds.
And Stevens says producing economical, sustainable cotton puts the industry in a good position compared to competing, man-made fibers.
“We can go to retailers and show that cotton is environmentally sound and leaves a small footprint on the earth. That's becoming more and more important.”
“We can always overcome our challenges,” says Rogers, who farms with his oldest son, Pat. “And as long as there is demand for cotton, there is a place for us in the Southeast to grow and market cotton. I am optimistic about the future.”
Cover corps have become an integral part of cropping plans for the High Cotton honorees, offering opportunities to conserve soil and moisture as well as improving soil health and increasing yields.
Hancock integrates minimum to no-till practices into his operation, which includes a corn rotation, to improve soil health. This year, as soon as he completed corn harvest and shredded the stalks, he sowed two rows of wheat between the corn rows to pin the trash.
“With the winds we get, or if we get a hard, washing rain, this helps hold the trash. When I put cotton in there the next year, I see the increase.” That yield bump could be as much as 250 pounds per acre.
Stevens uses cereal rye, a practice he discovered as a participant in the University of Arkansas and the Arkansas Association of Conservation Districts’ Discovery Farm program. A Discovery Farm measures water retention from rainfall or irrigation. It also measures the water that leaves the field, along with the nutrient load it carries with it. “Those runoff numbers have been quite useful,” Stevens says. “They are relatively low numbers — less than 5 percent nitrogen and less than 2 percent phosphorus.”
The cover crop plays a significant role in reducing runoff, Sevens says. Most of Stevens’ cotton land is in continuous cotton. Cover crops make up for no rotation.
“In some cases, we double yields, just by planting the cover crop.”
Cover crops have become a vital practice for Rogers for the last five years. He says cover crops work, and the response the crops show the following year is remarkable.
Pat Rogers likes an exotic multispecies cover crop tailored to both the land and the crop.
Michael leaves unproductive land idle. “Areas that are not good for farming, we’ve sort of left those alone,” he says. “Ultimately, those should be areas where the right plants are growing — native plants that help make sure that the environment is healthy too.”
Water use efficiency has become more important with declining water tables and irrigation costs across the Cotton Belt.
Rogers waters about 25 percent of the best land.
“Irrigation is a challenge for us because we are not blessed with great underground water,” he says. “Our wells can generate about 450 gallons per minute, while further south they generate 780 gallons per minute.” Irrigation works and is a key to their success. “It gives us a good yield response with all crops,” Rogers says.
“Good irrigation efficiency goes a long way to keep fertilizer in the field,” says Stevens. “Our irrigation efficiency is much better than for a typical farm not using computerized hole selection, most of which averages around 50 percent efficiency. We’re running around 90 percent water use efficiency and have run a little over 90 percent.”
It’s also more economical. “We got a 150-pound per acre increase in yield with no-till cover, compared to a farmer standard. We also found a 6-cent cost advantage with no-till cover.”
Hancock says he and other farmers in Texas have cut back on how many acres they’re irrigating, watering half a pivot or three quarters of a pivot. He’s also seen area growers return to a skip-row pattern, like they did in the 1980s, and maximizing a small acreage with drip irrigation has proven a successful alternative.
Much of Michael’s acreage is irrigated with subsurface drip. The rest is furrow irrigated.
Other common practices among the four farms include rotation (Stevens uses the cereal rye as a rotation crop), integrated pest management, soil sampling and adopting technology that improves efficiency.
“I have seen the transition from labor-intensive agriculture to machine-intensive agriculture to chemical-intensive agriculture,” says Rogers, who contends that innovation and timing of adoption of that technology have been keys to success.
Michael improved his harvest efficiency with John Deere on-board module harvesters and with 30-inch row spacing that may increase yields. He uses aerial imagery to help determine defoliation timing.
All four producers are active in farm organizations and give tirelessly to make certain their voices, and those of the farm families they represent, are heard in local, state and national legislatures.
After Farm Press editors met, interviewed and got to know these four farmers they came back with their usual responses as to the qualifications of the winners. “We have another exceptional class of High Cotton honorees.”