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For the Nichols: Teamwork keeps cotton viable

Mark Nichols and his son Blaine make a good team growing cotton in West Texas
<p>Mark Nichols and his son Blaine make a good team growing cotton in West Texas.</p>
Weather, price, nematodes challenge West Texas cotton Resistant varieties key to nematode management Looking forward to new herbicide technology

“I hate paperwork,” says Blaine Nichols. So his father, Mark, does all the marketing for their Gaines County, Texas, cotton and watermelon farm, while he looks after field operations. They each do what they’re good at.

“If Dad had not been in the office this summer to follow the highs and lows of the cotton market, we would have missed the few surges,” Blaine says. “He took care of it.”

Blaine talked about low prices and other challenges following a Deltapine field day on the farm he and Mark operate near Seminole. “Weather, nematodes, and low prices are our biggest obstacles,” he says. “We have root knot nematodes on every acre. The pressure varies from field to field, and damage depends on the population level.”

The tiny pests can cause significant yield losses. “In one field,” he says, “a typical yield goal was 1,000 to 1,100 pounds per acre. But with nematode-tolerant varieties, we can make 1,900 pounds or better. Resistance makes a difference.”

He’s depending on resistance since losing both Temik and Vydate insecticides. “A Deltapine variety, DP 174 RF, is doing pretty well,” he says.

The Nichols used to rotate peanuts with cotton, but have stayed out of peanuts the last few years, relying almost exclusively on resistant or tolerant cotton varieties. Blaine says he’s seen some carryover control after planting a resistant variety, but “it’s not something we have evaluated completely. Tests show reduced numbers after two years in resistant varieties.”



He and most other farmers in the area are looking forward to new technologies in dicamba- or 2, 4-D-tolerant varieties. But he’s a bit concerned about availability of nematode resistance options next year, since those varieties initially won’t come with a nematode-tolerant package. “We are excited about the XtendFlex varieties,” Blaine says, “and will plant them on most of our acreage.”

Deltapine cotton breeders on hand for the field day, which included variety trials on the Nichols fields, say they expect nematode resistance to be available in varieties released for the 2018 crop year.

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The new herbicide technologies will offer a big advantage with resistant and hard-to-control weeds, Blaine says, but they will continue a complete weed management program on their farm. “We’ve had some trouble with pigweeds, but we never got away from using yellow herbicides. We can’t afford to get behind — if we let pigweeds go for one year, we get a seed bank that will build up for the next 10 years. We don’t want to see escapes.”

He’s also aware of the potential for misusing the new technologies. “I hope farmers don’t do that,” he says. Resistant weed populations came about because too many farmers “used Roundup exclusively. Dad hammered it into us that we would continue to use yellow herbicides and different modes of action. We hurt our yields and hurt our land if we don’t use residuals.”



They are also taking a hard look at how they use diminishing water resources. “We are 100 percent irrigated,” Blaine says, “But water availability varies from farm to farm. We’ve reduced acreage to make sure we have enough water to grow a quality crop. We concentrate water to eliminate some expense and to produce quality cotton.”

The 2016 crop looks good overall, he says, but is a bit mixed. “Late-planted cotton looks good; early cotton suffered a bit from the hot, dry July and August, so yield potential is mixed across the farm.” The early cotton is not much ahead of the later acreage. “We’re about two weeks away from spraying harvest aids,” he says.

They aren’t looking to change much for 2017, except to add new varieties. “We’ll plant XtendFlex on most of the farm.”

He would like to see cotton price move up a bit more. “We need a price above 75 cents a pound, and we would like to see 80 cents. At 75 cents, we can make it work. We’re better off than earlier in the year, which started at 60 cents. A good banker and a good reputation helped us get started.”

Wholesale cost-cutting is not a viable option for their farm, Blaine says. “Even with low prices, we aren’t willing to cut costs on herbicides and other inputs. Yield is too important.”

They try to make 3 bales per acre. With that yield, someone in the office to take advantage of market movements, and someone in the field to manage production, he says, cotton will remain a viable crop.

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