Last fall, Robbie Robbins harvested his 62nd cotton crop. Five picker balers, accompanying equipment and employees converged on his Altus, Okla., farms to harvest 6,000 acres of cotton — a stark contrast to the mules he worked as a young boy on the family farm or his first five-acre cotton crop produced as a junior in high school.
Robbins credits his success to soil tests, variety test plots, a good entomologist and irrigation. Early in his career, he said Extension agents played a major role. “They helped young farmers grow, learn and do better.”
Robbins’ commitment to quality cotton production for more than half a century and service to the industry has earned him the Farm Press/Cotton Foundation 2021 High Cotton award for the Southwest.
Robbins’ career began in 1957 while attending Oklahoma A&M, now Oklahoma State University, where he double majored in field crops and entomology for $250 a semester. He spent summers checking cotton for insects.
As a college student, he cash-leased his first farm with money he’d saved from winning FFA projects and a gift. “My granddaddy gave me a calf when I was six months old,” Robbins recalled. “Daddy raised that calf, and then I sold it to a butcher shop in Altus and bought war bonds,” which he used to help fund the cash-lease.
See photo gallery, Robbie Robbins: 2021 Southwest High Cotton winner
Robbins quickly learned that farming is risky business. “It rained and rained. I didn’t get that cotton planted until June 27. A quarter made 10 bales of cotton. I lost all the money I had accumulated over that time,” Robbins said.
He didn’t give up. With a loan from Production Credit, he returned for his final school semester and planted another crop. “It was a good patch of cotton,” he said.
After graduation and before harvest, “the army was staring me in the face,” Robbins said. He and a friend enlisted and went through basic training at Fort Wood, Missouri. “It was something else.”
While away, Robbins’ father harvested his crop. “He helped me a lot,” Robbins said. “They baled one and three-quarters (to the acre). Back then that was pretty good cotton. It wouldn’t be good now, but back then, it was a decent crop.
“I gradually got bigger and rented more land.”
Today, Robbins farms 6,000 acres of cotton, 3,000 acres of wheat and ran cattle until late 2020. He gins at Altus Cotton Growers, where he is a founding member. “Some of us farmers bought Chickasha Gin. It was an antique, but we improved it every year and then built Cotton Growers.”
In 1989, while Robbins served as board president, they hired Mike Berry as the gin manager. “Mike knew more about gins than anybody in this country,” Robbins said. Berry still manages the gin today. In 2017, Cotton Growers ginned more than 200,000 bales — 20,233 of those were Robbins’.
“That year we hit the grand slam,” said farm manager Jeff Lorah, referring to the bale count still posted on the dry erase board in the farm office. Robbins’ farms averaged about 3.4 bales per acre that year, with some “hitting the four-plus mark,” recalled Lorah, who’s managed Robbins Farms for the last 25 years.
Keys to Success
Top yields depend on fertility, pest control and irrigation, Robbins said. He sends soil tests to OSU annually. “If you don’t fertilize pretty good, you’re not going to make good yields. If you don’t fight bollworms, they are going to eat you up and hurt you,” he added.
Fleahoppers and thrips are their primary pests. “We spray for thrips rather than scout for them, so we can treat them in a timely manner,” Lorah said.
“Irrigation’s been key,” Robbins said. He and area producers flood irrigate from canals from the Lugert-Altus Irrigation District, a lake located about 18 miles north of Altus. Robbins drip irrigates 800 acres of his cotton ground; only 300 acres is dryland.
The soils on his farms range from sandy to clay to clay loam. To account for variation, Robbins runs two planters at once on the same field. “We’ll use one planter on the high end of the field and one on the low end,” Lorah said. “If you’ve got a clay soil, you’re going to plant that at a certain depth; whereas, if you’ve got loam or gumbo on the low end, you’re going to plant that at a different depth.”
Robbins Farms operations manager Jeff Lorah, right, explains the filtration system on their newest drip system. (Photo by Shelley E. Huguley)
Variety selection is also important. Robbins uses variety trials to help determine the best variety for his soils and climate. “Jeff runs our test plots every year. It really does help.”
“We started doing them ourselves about 20 years ago, picking out our varieties and planting them. Then we started working with companies and getting some of their newer stuff,” Lorah said. “We started getting some of their experimental varieties and we’re doing our own plots with some experimentals.”
The test plot ranges from 40 to 50 acres, “full field trials, making replicated applications through a half-mile field,” Lorah said.
The 2020 trial contained eight varieties, “some experimental and some new varieties,” along with a proven variety for comparison. Testing the experimental varieties, those yet-to-be-released by a company, allows Robbins and Lorah a sneak peek.
“We can take those experimental varieties and know whether it’s an early variety, determinant or non-determinant, whether it’s tight and what it will yield. We can look at a variety and see the disease package. We can know if an experimental variety, one that could become a company’s numbered variety, might not fit here but the next one might,” Lorah said. “It gives us an advantage.”
Their results are popular with local farmers. “We have a lot of farmers ask, ‘Have you gotten yields back on your plots?’” Once harvested, the trial plots are ginned separately at Cotton Growers. Once Robbins and Lorah receive the yield and grade data, they create a spreadsheet to share with producers.
Cutting costs is also essential to Robbins’ success. “We try not to waste money and we take good care of the equipment — make it last as long as we can,” Robbins said. “We’ve got some older equipment and some new.”
The farms run five, 12-row cotton planters.
“We take each in the barn, long before we’re ready to use them and tear them down, replacing bearings, discs, anything that needs to be fixed or greased,” Lorah said. “Planting is probably the most critical thing we do on the farm; running 6,000 acres of cotton and trying to get it planted within one week, we don’t want a breakdown. So, we’ve got them fine-tuned and ready to go.”
Robbins’ relationship with Lorah is also vital. Lorah describes himself and Robbins as self-motivators who “crank” all the time. Robbins, who is 82 years old, said if it were not for Lorah, he likely wouldn’t still be farming. “If I didn’t have Jeff here to help me, I don’t know what I’d do,” Robbins said.
“Cotton and farming are what he breathes,” Lorah said of Robbins. “It’s not hunting or fishing. It’s what he is. It’s what he does.”
One thing Lorah respects about Robbins is how over the years he has put his landlords first. “No matter what, he was always looking out for the landlord because without them, we’re not where we are,” Lorah said. “I’ve seen Robbie check cotton for landlords in the middle of the night with a flashlight. I’ve seen him gather insects, back when we had bad insect problems, and take them to the landlord and tell him, ‘The application we sprayed took care of this pest and this pest.’”
Throughout his career, Robbins has served the cotton industry. He is a long-time delegate body representative at Plains Cotton Cooperative Association (PCCA) and serves on the Warehouse Committee. He served on the PCCA board of directors and was a member of PCCA’s Marketing Pool Committee. He has volunteered on the Lugert/Altus Irrigation Board, The Cotton Board, and OSU’s Board of Regents.
Robbins is married to Linda, his wife of 16 years, and is a member of Tamarack Road Church of Christ.
Join Farm Press and The Cotton Foundation for a livestream presentation of the 2021 High Cotton awards, March 23, 1 p.m. CDT. Farm Press will stream from four locations across the U.S. and recognize each grower/operation. Follow this link for more information.
Robbins' presentation will be held at Plains Cotton Cooperative Association, 20284 E. CR 165, Altus. Friends and family are invited to attend the presentation and a reception following the event.
The 2021 High Cotton Award winners are as follows: