Cotton pickers and strippers are on the brink of rolling out another harvest in Oklahoma. In Caddo County, Carnegie Cotton Gin Manager Jeanie Hileman turned out her first bale of dryland cotton Oct. 2. In the field, producer and Carnegie board member Steven King is digging peanuts and prepping his picker-baler for another harvest.
While Hileman will tell you King has been growing cotton since before cotton was cool, King will tell you, Hileman has been one of the most positive influences in developing the cotton industry in and around Carnegie.
“At one time, cotton almost disappeared in this area,” said King. But he credits Hileman’s enthusiasm and positivity about cotton for bringing it back. “She works well with farmers and she’s just an all-around cotton person. Without her, there's no question, cotton wouldn't be here today.”
Since cotton’s comeback, Hileman and her crew have not only built a new gin but also turned out a record 123,000 bales of cotton in 2017 and 120,000 last year.
King never gave up on cotton. Since he was born, he’s never not been around it. “I've never had a year when I wasn't in the cotton business.”
But King says a sense of pride also comes with producing the white fiber. “Part of it is identifying as a cotton farmer. I’ve always enjoyed growing cotton. It's a challenge, but it's also something you can predict. You watch it grow, you know what should happen. I just love cotton.”
But trade, the markets and the weather in Caddo County and throughout much of the U.S. has forced producers to develop a tough-love for farming.
King defines his year as “interesting — to put it mildly.” Late winter moisture had King optimistic about the 2019 crop year, but by the time planting season arrived, a cool, wet spell caused both his peanuts and cotton to be planted late.
“I finally got the cotton planted at the first of June,” he says. On a normal year, King plants his peanuts by mid-May with the cotton acres following close behind.
A break in the rain, and a forecast threatening only a five-day window until the next rainfall forced King to plant in conditions he would not normally consider. “We had to get it in the ground because we thought that might be our only shot.” Fortunately, the predicted rainfall never came to fruition, but King says if they had known, they could have waited a few more days and allowed planting conditions to improve.
“Overall, we only had to replant a small portion of cotton. We got a decent stand.”
While King typically farms for yields, his late stand has him shooting for maturity. “We'll probably run a little more PGR (plant growth regulator) to keep the plant in a more reproductive cycle. Over the years, you start to learn a few things that speed up the crop, and like I said, we’re not shooting for a high yield.”
King rotates his cotton and peanut acres on circles irrigated under center pivot systems. His dryland acres are on the corners of those circles.
“The dryland looks decent. It’s by no means going to be a barn burner — I don’t know if it will even make an average dryland crop — but it might not be far off.”
Hileman agreed, “The dryland (in this area) is not going to be as good, but I hope it surprises me. It has in the past.”
As technology and management practices have changed, King has transitioned as well. “Up until 15 years ago, we plowed everything,” he says. Then he transitioned to strip-till. “They say that’s a stepping stone to no-till.
“The last two years, I've been totally no-till. And at this point, yields seem to match, if not surpass, the strip-till. I don't know whether we can maintain it ─ everybody says at some point there might be a drag. I don't see it, but I try to not let compaction become an issue.”
And as long as Caddo County has winter freeze and thaw cycles, along with cotton’s deep root, and cover crop roots when they deteriorate, King says the soil should stay mellow.
Another adaptation King has made is switching to a picker-baler. “This area has always been predominantly stripper cotton. One or two guys picked a little bit.”
King was first introduced to a picker by a family who used to pick his cotton. “We started doing some comparisons between a picker and stripper. And that winter we decided this might be the way to go.”
After traveling to different states to look at picker-balers, King finally bought one. “That was the hardest half million dollars I ever spent.”
Throughout that summer, King says he kept thinking, “What did I just do? Everybody I talked to said to stay the course and that was about three pickers ago.”
While the maintenance is more intensive than with a stripper, King likes the picker-baler because once it’s in the bale, the cotton is still in as good condition as when it was first picked. “With the increase in cotton in this area, that alone has probably [allowed the picker-baler] to pay for itself.
“One of the big reasons to expand Carnegie Gin was to increase the capacity. I think the latest I've had a bale sit in the field was until May and it had been in the bale since Thanksgiving. It didn't faze the cotton at all and that really sold me.”
In spite of this year’s challenges, King and Hileman are hopeful the irrigated crop will fare well. “I think we're going to have a good crop, maybe not quite what we had hoped early in the season,” Hileman says. “The drought hurt the dryland pretty bad, but the irrigated crop may make up for it because we're having such a good open fall. Give me another two weeks of warm October weather and it's going to be awesome.”