Four-bale cotton requires a better than average variety, ample water, a proper nutrition program, timely application of necessary practices and just a smidgen of luck.
That’s what Randy Hargrove, Memphis, Texas, cotton and alfalfa producer, says helped him make 2,159 pounds per acre on just over 72 of the 400 acres of irrigated cotton he harvested last fall. He also irrigates 90 acres of alfalfa.
He was especially pleased with the yield considering rainfall for the third year in a row was sparse. His other acreage didn’t top four bales but yield ranged from 1,300 pounds per acre to 1,616 pounds per acre—on limited water. “I planted that field (1,616 pound yield) late, June 16,” Hargrove said. He planted his best cotton in early May.
Hargrove received very little rain last year and pre-watered cotton with 4 inches of water before he planted. “Last year was almost as bad as 2011,” he said. “We’re in a four-year drought cycle and this year could be worse than 2011. It’s starting off that way.”
He had already added 6 inches of pre-water irrigation to his cotton land as he prepared to plant in early May. He planted his best field May 1 last year and would have started planting by late April this year but a cold snap delayed him a bit. Plant population runs from 50,000 to 52,000 plants per acre with a seed drop rate of three per foot of row.
He thinks he can top last year’s production. With 6 inches of pre-plant irrigation, Hargrove says he’s “set up for a better crop than last year.”
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He says his wells “have held up. But water quality is not as good. We’re nozzled for 950 gallons per minute (on our best water). Wells are about 120 feet deep and we do everything we can to conserve water.” He said if conditions warrant, he’ll irrigate again before planting to assure ample moisture for germination.
Lot of water needed
Cotton took a lot of irrigation water last year. “We pretty much had to leave it on after we started irrigating,” he said. In-season he switches to bubbler nozzles. He builds row dikes to help hold water in place. “We also plant a circle row pattern to hold water,” he added.
He plants in a two in and two out skip pattern to spread water out better. He leaves old cotton stalks in the field all winter. “I come in with a para-till without disturbing the old stalks.” He plants in the fallow rows beside the old stalks and then chops the stalks after planting.
Choosing between keeping a cover crop alive with irrigation to reduce the possibility of wind damage in the spring or to save water for the summer crop is often a hard decision, but he believes conserving the water is more important. He gets some protection from the old cotton stalks. He also interseeds rye between cotton rows in some fields and leaves the stubble.
“We have to come up with a way to hold soil rather than watering a cover crop,” he said.
Hargrove likes the variety that produced his four-bale cotton last year, Croplan 3787, a Roundup Ready, BG variety. He said another variety planted beside it, in similar soil and with the same management, “didn’t do as well and made only 1,300 pounds per acre.”
The 1,616-pound per acre yield was also 3787 and did well in spite of a late start and limited water.
Grades were also good, said Lance Keys, agronomy manager for Equity Exchange, where Hargrove buys seed and supplies and offers crop consulting services. “Loan value was about 5 cents more than average,” Keys said, “57 cents to 58 cents.”
Hargrove said the variety stripped well and needed only 2 ounces of a growth regulator. “We applied 2 ounces of Stance. The 3787 is a pretty compact plant that sets bolls close to the ground and sets bolls quicker than some other varieties.”
Hargrove says he will plant 3787 “on every row this year.”
Keys said cotton producers haven’t topped out on yield yet. “Seed in the bag has potential to make five or six bales per acre,” he said. “It goes down from there.”
Genetics, he said, are there. It takes timely management, water and fertility to get close to the yield potential.
Hargrove started last season planning to make a big cotton yield, so he and Keys developed an appropriate fertility program to achieve a lofty goal. They started with a 90-50-50 analysis with some zinc, pre-plant. “We’ll apply that right after planting this year,” Keys said. “We also ran some nitrogen and potassium through the pivot system. We’re finding out that potassium is huge in cotton. We have a lot in our soils but it is tied up. The only way to get it to the plant is to spoon feed it or apply with a spray rig.”
They applied nitrogen in three trips, 30 gallons of 32-0-0. “We added potassium at the same time,” Keys said. “Then, we pulled tissue samples to see what the plant was calling for. We start off with a soil test to see what the plant needs early.”
Hargrove said timing was important and praised Keys for staying on top of his crop needs. “Equity was there when we needed them,” he said.
Weed control, especially with the potential for herbicide resistant species, is a concern. “We use a yellow herbicide along with Roundup,” Hargrove said. Some resistant pigweed and marestail have shown up. “We may have to do some cultivation.”
New seed technology with 2, 4-D and Dicamba tolerance scheduled to come out within a year or two will help fight resistance, Keys said, but will create some new challenges.
Hargrove said he only sprayed for insect pests once last year, Vydate for fleahoppers. “We added it with the first application of Roundup.”
Hargrove said cotton prospects are beginning to pick up. “Price is looking good, above 80 cents a pound.”
It’s just as well with limited rotation options. “We are limited here to what we can grow,” Keys said. “Corn and grain sorghum are not well adapted. Peanuts do okay and we have our first field of canola this year.”
“But it’s cotton country,” Hargrove said. He does well with alfalfa, cutting six times a year to meet demand from an established customer base. “Alfalfa uses a lot of water.” It also requires a lot of labor, supplied by Hargrove and his three sons, Rance, 16; Ky, 15; and Jett, 13. He says the boys are learning a lot about hard work, responsibility and the value of a work ethic. Two daughters, Brittany, 20, and Jordan, 19, are in school. Hargrove’s wife Wendy “is the best cook in the county,” he said. She probably has to be to feed Hargrove and three growing, hard-working boys.