Dale Swinburn is well aware of the fragile characteristics of the natural resources that make the Texas Plains a good place to grow cotton.
The soil is fertile; the climate is warm enough in summer to generate adequate heat units; it's cold enough most winters to stifle pest insects' efforts to rule the world; and underground water has been, if not always abundant, at least available to supplement rainfall with timely irrigation.
But Mother Nature can be a temperamental hostess, especially when demands on her largesse consume resources faster than she can restore them.
Growing cotton puts soil in jeopardy of water and wind erosion; intense irrigation depletes what was once believed to be an almost limitless aquifer; and the vagaries of weather create havoc of one kind or another on crops through drought, cold, hail, flood and the High Plains' ubiquitous wind.
Swinburn says making cotton under such challenging yet promising conditions demands that growers balance high yield against production efficiency and conservation. His ability to accomplish those goals earned him the 2003 Southwest Farm Press High Cotton Award.
Swinburn has grown cotton near Tulia, Texas, since 1966. He made his first crop just after receiving an agronomy degree from Texas Tech, on land his schoolteacher parents had bought as investments. The investments continue to pay dividends.
“We've made progress since then,” Swinburn says. “Farming has been good to us, even though the past five or 10 years have been difficult.”
Since the early 1990s he's concentrated on conservation to save soil and water and to improve efficiency. “A benchmark for our conservation efforts was a field day in Turpin, Okla., sponsored by Kansas State and Oklahoma State universities. The program concentrated on methods to conserve water in dryland sorghum and wheat.”
Swinburn has adapted those techniques to cotton, which, he maintains, offers the best profit potential for his area, which pushes the northern boundary for cotton production in Texas.
He credits Roundup Ready technology with easing the transition from conventional to reduced tillage.
“I also realized that this area was running out of water,” he says. “We have to do a better job of using it.”
Swinburn rotates cotton and wheat and plants his cotton crop in wheat stubble. “That's a common practice now,” he says. “We see a lot of advantages from crop residue. Limiting wind damage to cotton seedlings heads the list. I hate fighting sand.”
He says the wheat stubble protects young cotton from winds strong enough to turn soil into a sandblaster that shears cotton off at the ground.
He admits that a cover crop requires water and that farmers often walk a fine line between allowing the cover to draw too much water from the soil and getting adequate growth to develop enough residue.
“In theory, we're supposed to get rain in June and July to bring the cotton along,” he says. “That doesn't always happen.”
He irrigates a good portion of his cotton acreage, some with limited water and some from wells deep enough to make a crop.
“With full irrigation, we'll apply from 10 inches to 15 inches a season,” Swinburn says. “With adequate water, I like to apply 1 inch per week during the growing season. That's about all we can do and it's enough if we get some rain.”
Technology helps him save water. “All our irrigation systems are low energy precision application (LEPA) units with bubblers on the ground. When I bought them, a salesman tried to get me to buy sprinkler heads, but I wanted the LEPA system. I was convinced that it was the best system and all the research showed it to be the most efficient.”
He thinks the farm bill passed last summer may encourage farmers to improve irrigation efficiency.
“If it's like I think it's going to be, the legislation will offer incentives to upgrade irrigation,” he says. “That could be a great help in switching to a LEPA or drip system. Also, we need assistance to replace some underground concrete with pipe.” Swinburn says a few farms still rely on furrow or side-row irrigation, but “less every year.”
He's also interested in drip irrigation. “It intrigues me,” he says. “Some farms simply don't mesh with center pivot irrigation. The configuration or size may be wrong. But a farmer could install drip systems in those fields or under parts of them. That's one way a grower could concentrate resources on his best land. We don't have a shortage of land in this area.”
He's changed philosophy over the years, from a commitment to maximum yields to one of “maximum profit. I have some cotton that will make 1,000 to 1,200 pounds per acre.”
Other fields, he says, will make three-fourths of a bale.
“I have mostly Pullman clay loam soil. It has high clay content and I'd actually like a bit more sand, but it's extremely productive if it gets enough water. When it dries out, it's hard to replace moisture. In 2002 we didn't get any rain from Memorial Day, when we got a hard rain, until August. Those August rains saved us.”
Swinburn says the boll weevil eradication program, now in its third year in this zone, limits insect losses. “We're ecstatic about the progress,” he says. “We were getting 100-weevil trap counts and are down to almost nothing. That many weevils took a lot of our top crop.”
He says seed technology also improves efficiency. He plants Roundup Ready varieties on about 90 percent of his acreage.
“I use some Stoneville, Paymaster, FiberMax and All-Tex varieties. I'm excited about the companies' new stripper varieties developed for the High Plains. And FiberMax has a picker variety that shows promise.”
He says stacked gene and just-Bt varieties have not caught on as much as Roundup Ready. “We sprayed everything we had last year for worms, but we can treat fairly cheaply.”
He says the perfect variety for the Texas High Plains would offer excellent yield and quality characteristics already available but also would “use water very efficiently. We've already discovered that most good varieties work well in reduced tillage systems.
“I like to try new varieties. I'm not married to a certain one and am always looking for something better. We've had some really good ones come along in the past few years.”
He uses his interest in variety development as chairman of the Plains Cotton Growers Association variety improvement committee.
Swinburn believes technology still offers potential to improve cotton production. “I believe there are plants with better growth potential and an ability to use water more efficiently.”
He says researchers have found pine trees, for instance, that are 20 percent more efficient water users. “That's amazing. John Gannaway (Texas A&M cotton breeder at Lubbock) is looking for that characteristic in cotton.”
Swinburn sees cotton as a strong economic force in the High Plains and understands why it's pushing northward, out of its traditional production zone. Water demands for grain crops may limit how long farmers can depend on them, he says. Cotton gets by with less moisture.