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High cotton winner Dahlen Hancock with his 3-feet of inspiration, Cora Elin Hancock.

3-feet of inspiration motivates Texas grower toward sustainability

High Cotton winner always thinking ahead

If you had asked Dahlen Hancock 38 years ago about his inspiration to farm, he might have credited his rich agricultural heritage: his German-born family who settled in Texas in the early 1900s; or maybe his dearly-loved grandfather, D.W. Hancock, who bought 200 acres of farmland in the New Home, Texas, area through an FHA loan in 1941, working the land until his last breath at 80 years of age; or his innovative dad, Donald Hancock, who partnered with his neighbor in 1974, to purchase one of the first module builders — a green Husky.

“I come from a family that’s always tried to be thinking ahead, trying new things,” says Dahlen. But today, he will tell you, his inspiration stands about three-feet tall, with stone-washed denim blue eyes and naturally curly brunette hair, and a curiosity about the farm that would make any grandpa proud. She calls him D.K. He calls her his future and his world — his 5-year-old granddaughter Cora Elin Hancock.

And while his agricultural roots run deep, it’s Dahlen’s sustainable practices that are not only ensuring a farming future for a sixth generation, but have also earned him the honor of being named the Farm Press/Cotton Foundation 2019 Southwest High Cotton Award winner.

See, 25th Class of High Cotton winners named

The winners, one for each region of the cotton belt, are nominated and chosen based on their excellence in production and stewardship. They will be recognized at an awards breakfast held in conjunction with the Mid-South Farm and Gin Show at Memphis, Tenn., March 1-2.

PROGRESSIVE, INNOVATIVE 

“Cotton farming has been in Dahlen’s family for generations. He is one of the most progressive and innovative growers I know,” Plains Cotton Growers President and farming neighbor Stacy Smith wrote in Hancock’s nomination. “He is committed to preserving his land and his water and using the most efficient and sustainable methods possible to produce a crop.”

 “Dahlen is a true innovator, in every sense of the word,” writes Kelsey Stokes, ag lending, assistant vice president at Wellington State Bank. “He respects and reveres the wisdom he learned from his father and grandfather, but he has never rested on the laurels of his predecessors — if there is a better way, he will find it. Dahlen has been a humble student of new and improved farming practices and has always sought to upgrade and advance his farming operation in ways that are financially feasible for his land.”

COTTON, COTTON, COTTON

Dahlen, along with his two sons, Zach Walker and Matt Hancock, grow cotton in the largest cotton patch in the U.S., the Texas South Plains, where an average of 3.7 million bales of cotton are produced each year. Historically, growers in his area have grown cotton-on-cotton, but because of disease issues such as verticillium wilt, reniform and root-knot nematodes, he has been forced to rotate — a management decision which has actually increased his cotton yields.

Initially, he rotated with milo, but because of the sugarcane aphid, he’s switched to corn. “I try to thin the corn population down, and I don’t shoot for quite as high a yield as some people. I’m doing it more for the rotation and for the betterment of the soil and what it’s going to do. Then, when I put cotton in there the next year, that’s when I see the increase.

“Some people say you can get half a bale, a 250-pound or so bump, just from following corn with cotton. We definitely see an increase, and it’s an increase worth following.”

REDUCED TILLAGE

In addition to pulling soil samples, Dahlen has also begun to integrate minimum to no-till practices into his operation to improve soil health. This year, as soon as his corn was harvested and the stalks shredded, he sowed two rows of wheat between the corn rows to pin the trash.

See, Photo Gallery Dahlen Hancock named Southwest High Cotton Winner

“With the winds we get, this helps hold the trash, or if we get a hard, washing rain. Then we’ll plant cotton next year right back where the corn was. Kind of a no-till situation. I’m still tilling some ground the conventional way, but we’re trying to do more no-till for soil health — trying to learn.”

In a perfect world, Dahlen admits he’d grow cotton year after year. “We’d rather grow cotton because it’s better suited for our arid climate — we don’t get that much rainfall.” But he’s also unsure, with the depleting Ogalala Aquifer, how much longer he can water up his rotational crops.

“We average about 18 inches of rainfall each year,” he says. “Most of the irrigation systems I have are light water — about 250 gallons to 300 gallons a minute — so, we’re really stretching the water to try to irrigate the acres we’re watering.”

CHANGING WEATHER PATTERNS

And in a drought year, like growers experienced in 2018, when it doesn’t rain, it hurts, he says. “We have great soil. But it seems like in the last five to seven years, when the drought started, it’s changed and it’s gotten a lot harder.

“I used to think we were in a honey hole — great dirt, great soil — and if we got any rain, we could make two to three bales. It seemed like it happened a lot. Then all of a sudden, about 2011, we went through the drought years. 2016 wasn’t too bad — it rained. But then 2017 was terrible, a rough, rough year. This year (2018) has been difficult; it’s better than 2017, but still difficult mainly because of the weather pattern.”

To weather the climate changes, Dahlen says, in addition to cover crops, he and others in his area have begun to 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.

“I think it’s because what we’ve been doing traditionally hasn’t paid the bills — the cost of production is so high today. For our kids, you want to try to figure out a balance to go forward.”

DRIP AS ALTERNATIVE

For oldest son, Zach, maximizing a small acreage on drip irrigation has proven to be a successful alternative. “He’s liking that because he can concentrate the water and the yields have been good. He had a couple of patches this year that were just shy of 3-1/2 bales. But, he says, “you’re putting more inputs into it in a smaller block.”

Bottom line, Dahlen says these are challenging times on the High Plains. “You hear of these different areas up north in corn country and they’re growing this cotton like we used to, but I think that even goes back to rotation, because those guys will be where we are eventually if it’s just cotton, cotton, cotton. We’ve got to figure it out now — and I don’t have it figured out.”

REMOVING THE GUESSWORK

While Dahlen readily admits he doesn’t have all of the answers, he says technology like John Deere Link and AgSense, and his son’s understanding of the technology, removes some of the guesswork while increasing his operation’s efficiency.

For example, John Deere Link allows Dahlen and his sons to map and collect data on planting and fertilization. This summer, Dahlen and Matt, who farm together, had an employee running one of their 16-row planters. Matt realized from the data that planting was not uniform and he was able to tweak the population from the cab of the tractor. 

“Matt understands this — he’s in that world, so he does some tweaking to where they’re all almost perfectly uniform. Well, I didn’t think that much about it and I thought that’s good, I guess we’re saving a little seed. I sometimes want to go when they want to stop, and try to piddle with this stuff.

“But it was so good. When we harvested where Matt planted, they said they could see it was uniform throughout the field. The yield was better. It made more in that area than where the former employee was running.”

SERVING THE INDUSTRY

Beyond the cotton field, Dahlen serves on boards such as the National Cotton Council, Cotton Incorporated, and Cotton Council International (CCI). He says these experiences have not only afforded him opportunities to serve the industry, but also to see the big picture, from production to manufacturing and from the cotton fields of Texas, to those worldwide.

Through his industry service, Dahlen has traveled to about 12 different countries, discussing the sustainability and quality of U.S. cotton with mill owners. “I thought, how can one little producer make a difference? But you can. They don’t get to see many producers.

“These mill owners or agents may talk to salespeople who are the middlemen working to sell our product, but they don’t get to visit with as many producers and they like talking to producers because we’re the boots on the ground.”

For the last two and half years, Dahlen has served as Cotton Incorporated’s chairman, having completed their officer rotation program. He has also served as a director on the New Home Co-op Gin board, including 12 years as its chairman, and currently serves on the PCCA board of directors as well as its delegate body and marketing pool committee.

“He is a leader in the truest sense of the word,” writes Kevin Brinkley, PCCA president and CEO.

A TEAM EFFORT

Lastly, Dahlen will tell you he couldn’t do what he does, on or off the farm, without his team — from his sons to his wife of 32 years, Jody, to his sister, Donette Case, a banker who also manages the farm books, to his farm foreman of 23 years, Abel Escabedo, and his family.

“I couldn’t serve and do what I do in the industry if it wasn’t for these guys and my wife and my family. We have all been together a long time. We’ve all got different strengths we bring to the table. But there’s no way I could serve or have served like I have without them.”

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