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To improve production efficiency: Innovative growers look to outer space, underfoot

Practices as time-honored as soil sampling and time management and as hi-tech as satellite imagery and bio-technology play increasingly important roles as cotton producers struggle to ease the cost-price squeeze that threatens profitability.

Four farmers, representing the four distinct regions of the U.S. Cotton belt, shared ideas on efficiency at the recent Beltwide Cotton Conferences in San Antonio, Texas. Each offered a unique perspective on how to pull more out of each acre of land, pound of fertilizer or droplet of increasingly costly irrigation water. But all four indicated that genetically modified varieties, improved irrigation systems and global positioning agriculture play important roles on their farms.

Doug Wilde, San Angelo, Texas, credit the success of the Boll Weevil Eradication Program for increased yield potential on his farm. He's also seeing significant yield jumps with subsurface drip irrigation, accompanied by precise timing for fertilization, seeding, growth regulator applications and pest control. He's cutting back on tillage to save soil and cut fuel costs. Crop rotation (wheat, corn, grain sorghum and cotton) also contributes.

“Boll weevil eradication has been a great investment for this area,” Wilde says. “Our average yield has almost doubled the last two years.”

Part of that increase comes from elimination of weevil damage. “But improved irrigation and technology also make a significant difference.” Average rainfall for the area is only 18.2 inches a year, so efficient irrigation systems are key. “I've added more drip,” he says.

“I've seen a dramatic increase with drip irrigation. I've hit 1,800 pounds per acre and had some that pushed 2,000 pounds. But we made 700 pounds per acre on dryland cotton last year. We had good rainfall the last two years.”

He says drip irrigation does more than save water. “It allows us to use water more efficiently. It's a more environmentally friendly way to apply fertilizers and chemicals.”

He currently irrigates 297 acres with drip and plans to increase to 400. He's also using effluent water from San Angelo on some fields, a practice that gives him water and helps San Angelo dispose of waste. He also applies dairy manure.

Wilde says drip systems come in three designs: straight, curved or circled. He's using 40-inch spacing for the drip tape and planting on 40-inch rows, so he has a drip line under every row of cotton.

Installation must be precise, he says. “We use GPS and auto-steer to lay the lines, six rows at a time. We clear rocks and other debris before we put the tape down.”

He likes to plant cotton in his drip fields in the first two weeks of May and puts out 39,000 to 40,000 seed per acre. Early season pests, mainly thrips, are his primary insect problem. “I really don't have worm pressure because I'm using Bollgard II.”

A plant growth regulator is essential for SDI cotton, he says. “I put on 2 ounces at pinhead square and then monitor the crop weekly. I don't want SDI cotton more than 36 inches tall. That's adequate for four-bales.”

He needs five gallons of water per minute per acre to hit that yield goal. He applies water at first square to replace 30 percent to 35 percent of the evapo-transpiration rate. At first bloom he adjusts upward to 50 percent to 55 percent and at peak boosts to 90 percent to 95 percent.

“I irrigate until the cotton reaches 20 percent cracked boll. I don't skip a week on irrigation.”

He uses soil analysis and two leaf and two petiole analyses for fertility guidelines. He knifes in phosphorus and potassium and applies most of his nitrogen through an irrigation system, along with zinc and micronutrients.

“I want 200 pounds of nitrogen per acre for four-bale cotton. I get about 30 pounds from dairy manure.”

He applies a boll opener at 65 percent open boll and uses paraquat as a desiccant.

Wilde says cotton farmers in his area face some serious challenges over the next few years. “Root rot can be a problem here. We also need an economical rotation crop. And production costs, including seed, chemicals, energy, labor and other supplies are rising.”

The meet those challenges he plans to use more GPS technology, and upgrade his auto-steer capability. “I'll continue to evaluate new varieties and manage root rot. And I intend to add more drip irrigation.”

David Dunlow, Gaston, North Carolina, says improving labor efficiency, reducing tillage, upgrading to larger equipment and using GPS technology help improve profit potential.

“Efficiency, communication and knowledge are the keys to running a complex operation,” Dunlow says.

He's looked at peak and part time labor to solve some of his manpower problems. He uses migrant labor on a seasonal basis. “My tractor drivers are migrant workers,” he says. “I may need them 12 or 14 hours a day, seven days a week in planting and harvest seasons. I pay them well and treat them well and get the same ones back every year. That way I don't have to train new people every time.”

He says switching to minimum till cotton also increases efficiency. “I make two trips to plant,” he says. “I save fuel, labor and equipment.”

He's also upgraded to 12-row equipment and saves fuel and labor compared to eight-row units.

Dunlow follows a to-do list and prioritizes his activities. “I keep a laptop in my truck all the time and record activities. A computer program helps me keep information organized.”

He says GPS technology also will improve efficiency.

Communication, Dunlow says, helps the operation run smoothly. He starts each day with a 15-minute employee meeting. “I go over the day's schedule and employees catch me up on what happened the day before and alert me to any concerns.”

Keeping everyone in the loop, he says, makes them part of the decision process.

He says knowledge, available from associations, co-ops, universities and industry improve his operation.

“I always look for new and different ways to be more efficient,” he says.

Justin Cariker, Dundee, Miss., soil-samples his 5600-acre farm (4,300 in cotton) every two years to “determine how varied the fields are. If I see a lot of variation I do a grid sample; if not, I stay with blanket fertilizer applications.”

He says controlled traffic cultivation is important. He uses three six-row para-till units. “In the spring, I just apply a burndown and plant. In sandy soil, I bed and apply the burndown in the spring.”

In a normal year he gets by with one herbicide application (Touchdown and Dual).

He irrigates about 3,000 acres, 2,000 with pivots and 1,000 with furrow water.

“I have to stay on top of irrigation. If we ever get behind we never catch up. I monitor cotton field-by-field to watch inputs.”

He uses Cruiser insecticide and Dynasty fungicide on every acre. “Those are the only blanket applications I make.”

He tries to defoliate with one application, if he gets good weather.

Cariker uses remote sensing to help make defoliation decisions. “I use satellite imagery to determine cutout to see if I need to begin defoliation earlier than expected. I look for 60 percent to 65 percent open bolls.”

He's switched to 12-row planters and uses two to cover the 4,300 acres. “I rely on variety selection to spread maturity.”

He uses three John Deere Pickers, each with its own boll buggy and module builder. “At harvest, time is money.”

Cannon Michael farms near Los Banos, Calif., and says farmers have to innovate to control rising production costs. “California cotton acreage is down from a million acres to 600,000,” he says. “Survival may depend on innovations such as bio-technology, GPS, variable rate application, yield maps and auto steer.”

But he cautions farmers not to get so caught up in technology that they lose track of the bottom line. “We can get into an information overload,” he says, “and waste time figuring out what something means and then discovering that we can't do anything about the problem anyway. Keep track of costs — especially when trying something new.”

But he says one piece of equipment, the Optimizer, pays for itself. “It's the Swiss Army Knife of farm implements,” he says.

The machine offers, “one-pass tillage but needs a big tractor — at least 500 horsepower — to pull it. But we're able to do things on a timely basis.”

He's also used satellite imagery and prefers Land Sat to aerial imagery. “I use Land Sat for prescription Pix applications,” he says.

“I may see some minor differences between Land Sat and aerial imagery but my consultant lets me know if we need to alter the Land Sat prescription. I achieve some of the same goals with Land Sat as I would with aerial imagery and it's less expensive.”

Michael moves around his fields, away from the perimeters, to take soil samples “to get a better indication of the field.”

He also cautions growers about using just one piece of technology to make production decisions. “We can't always look at a yield map and determine the cause of reduced yield,” he says. “Sometimes, it's a cumulative effect from various causes.”

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