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Efficient water use, rotation provide keys to 2007 plans

Using available moisture more efficiently and concentrating on rotation deserve places near the top of the management priorities list for Lamesa, Texas, cotton and grain farmer Mike Hughes as he completes harvest of the 2006 cotton crop, finishes seeding winter wheat and starts thinking about plans for 2007.

Hughes irrigates about half his acreage. “But some of that is with only limited water supplies so, realistically, I have only about 25 percent fully irrigated. I have some pivots with half circles in cotton and the other half in wheat. I may do more of that in 2007.”

Hughes plans to run cattle on wheat planted early enough. “I'll harvest most of the crop for seed,” he says. “I try to be as flexible as possible. I'll have a whole circle in wheat and, depending on the price, I may cut some of that for hay. Initially, I plan to harvest wheat or grain. Price of hay may be a factor.”

He intends to combine some, at least enough to plant next fall for a cover crop in cotton fields.

Wheat serves multiple purposes for Hughes. It provides winter grazing, offers the option of a hay or grain cash crop, serves as a winter cover and residue for minimum-till cotton, gives him a much needed rotation crop and supplies an option to spread out sometimes limited water resources.

“Wheat allows me to use water more efficiently and gives me a desperately needed rotation crop. I've said for years that rotation is necessary. I work toward a half and half cotton and grain mix. Several years ago, when cotton prices were good, I thought about planting everything in cotton. But I need the rotation.”

He says in some areas farmers may plant corn on some acreage to take advantage of higher prices. “Wheat acreage may slip a bit because of demand for corn in ethanol production.”

Hughes says pushing rotation sometimes take s a bit of persuasion to landlords who see cotton as their best profit option. “We sometimes have to educate land owners about the value of rotation, especially following excellent cotton crops.”

Hughes says rotation advantages show more in dry years.

Grain sorghum may play into the mix as well. “We get organic matter from rotation crops and that improves water infiltration and makes fertilizer work better. Organic matter holds nutrients in the soil.”

He likes to have vegetative matter growing on the land. “I planted wheat in September and October. With nothing growing on the land, rains would have run off. With a wheat stand, it soaks into the soil.” Late-harvested grain sorghum also helps keep soil in place until he plants a cover crop.

Hughes says developing a better rotation system will be a key for 2007. “Every year is different but I'm always looking for a viable rotation. I'll work in wheat and grain sorghum and may add corn on a small acreage.

“I look at rotation through rose-colored glasses,” Hughes says. “I can't compare rotation crops straight up with cotton, but I look at benefits in the cotton fields three or four years later.”

He says agriculture is changing with more emphasis on renewable fuels production.

“We're coming to a turning point,” Hughes says. “I've been a bit skeptical of ethanol, wondering if some (industry or agency) would throw a wrench in it. But it looks like ethanol may use many products from agriculture. The door's wide open.”

The changes may not come just from grains, he says. “I have no doubt that with changes in cotton genetics we'll probably see something from cottonseed that helps us make fuel.”

Alternative uses for cottonseed, grains and other crops may provide the stimuli farmers need to regain profits, which will be hard to find on many farms this year.

“We may make some pretty good yields on irrigated cotton,” he says, “but when we pay the electric and gas bills I don't anticipate much profit. In fact, I foresee a large percentage of producers with carryover debt after this crop.”

Hughes, in addition to running his farm, serves as president of Plains Cotton Growers Inc.

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