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Input choices gain greater scrutiny

Editor's note: West Texas cotton farmers sometimes get branded as low-input producers. The thought process goes that trying to grow cotton in an area as unpredictable as the Texas Plains or in rain-dependent Central Texas, comes with so many risks that putting a lot of money into the crop makes little sense considering all the things that can go wrong with it.

That production philosophy may make sense to some and more than a few growers have eked out a living growing dryland cotton with minimum inputs. But a growing number of Central and West Texas farmers are increasing management intensity, in both dryland and, especially, in irrigated fields to enhance yield potential and to produce the highest quality fiber possible.

Following is the second in a series of articles depicting some of the best management practices farmers are using to improve profit potential in Texas cotton.

Joe Appling recalls a time when a half-bale of cotton per acre would pay the bills.

“We used to think we could make a living on a half-bale,” Appling, 76, said. “I don't think we can now.”

Yield goals on dryland and irrigated acreage on the Appling farm, near Crosbyton, Texas, run now by brothers Mark and David since Joe's retirement last year, have inched up over the years. “We push for three-fourths to one bale per acre on dryland and two bales per acre for irrigated acreage,” Mark said.

They did better than that in 2004. “We made 950 pounds on dryland,” Joe said. “I've been looking for that crop for 75 years.” Irrigated cotton made from 1,000 to 1,200 pounds per acre.

The biggest improvement in the last decade, and the change that makes higher yields possible, Mark said, is better variety selection.

“Varieties have made a difference,” he said. “We used to get just a bale per acre on irrigated cotton; now we get two (or more).”

He said variety selection may be the easiest choice to make in a production program. “We get a lot of information from (Texas A&M cotton specialist) Randy Boman's large scale variety trials. At the end of his charts he always puts a dollar sign, indicating the difference in returns from one variety to another. Pounds may be the bragging rights of a variety but these test results show us how to make more money.”

He said some varieties grade better and some are more stress tolerant.

“We see too much difference to ignore,” David said. “Quality means a lot.”

“The old standard varieties we used to plant in dryland go into the loan at 45 cents to 46 cents a pound,” Mark said. “Newer ones go in at 54 cents to 55 cents. That's a big difference.”

“We haven't had as much trouble with mic the last few years,” Joe said.

“Micronaire is a combination of weather and genetics,” Mark said.

The Applings select varieties based on field potential and production method. They put about one-third of their dryland acreage in wheat and plant no-till cotton in stubble the next spring. The third year, that acreage goes into conventionally tilled cotton.

The usual no-till, dryland variety is AFD 3511. On conventional till dryland, they plant AFD 2485 and FM 958.

On irrigated acreage they plant FM 960RR and BCG 50R.

They lost about two-thirds of their dryland acreage to hail last spring and replanted most in AFD 3511. “We planted 600 acres back to grain sorghum and the rest of the hailed out 1500 acres in cotton,” Mark said. “We were through by June 18 but we should have planted more of that acreage back to cotton. Our later cotton will do better that a maize crop.”

They haven't used a lot of Bt varieties. “Worm problems are not a big factor,” Joe said.

“We've been in the large plot trials for four years now,” Mark said, “and we've sprayed for worms only one time.”

The Applings irrigate only 20 percent of their acreage and all but 60 acres of irrigated land is under pivot irrigation. They like the convenience of pivots.

“It's easier to manage,” David said. ‘We can crank them up and get some moisture and hold it and then wait for rain. We can add 1 inch in four days and then shut it off for four days. It is convenient.”

“We can give cotton a little water after August if we need to,” Joe said. “We used to quit watering in August because we expected September to be wet. With pivots, we can be more flexible.”

They are concerned about the increasing cost of irrigating cotton.

They alter fertility on irrigated acreage as well. They start with 100 pounds of 11-52-0 just before listing. They add another 50 to 70 pounds of nitrogen in the summer through the pivots.

“We didn't get that much on this year,” Mark said, “because we didn't water as much.”

They say they made a relatively inexpensive crop with less fertilizer and less irrigation.

Weed control is another story and is one of their most expensive management practices. They plant Roundup Ready varieties in all no-till and most irrigated acreage.

“We use a yellow herbicide on everything,” David said. “We'll put a band of Direx on most acreage at planting.”

In season, they use Roundup and cultivate. They rely on shielded sprayers for post-emergence controls.

“Morning glory has been a problem in some fields,” Mark said. “Roundup is not particularly good on morning glory, so we've tried some Liberty Link varieties. That's not a complete answer but it's another useful tool.”

Economics dictate some weed control practices. “We used to spot spray a lot to get clean fields,” Joe said. “And we used hoe hands. Now, we can't afford to farm as clean as your daddy did. We don't make as many trips across the fields as we used to and it's harder to keep fields clean.”

“That makes what we do even more important,” Mark said. “We can't afford to plant without Treflan and Direx. We can band Direx for $2 an acre and that helps a lot. It also buys us some time on applying Roundup.”

“This is the first year we haven't used spot spraying,” Joe said. “Energy and labor costs encouraged us to drop it.”

He said finding hoe hands has become difficult.

They look forward to incorporating Roundup Flex into their operation in 2006. “If it's at a reasonable price it will be an important tool,” Mark said.”

Insect pressure has been relatively light this year. “We've had good beneficial activity,” Mark said, “and we haven't had high worm infestations. If we have something like thrips, we can add an insecticide to our Roundup application (on Roundup Ready varieties).”

They use an Extension integrated pest management agent to check some of their acreage and do the rest themselves.

They credit the Boll Weevil Eradication Program with improving pest control. Scouts found no weevils in their area this year.

“This is one great success story,” Joe said.

“It's been an expensive program,” Mark said, “but it's been effective and we needed it.”

“We had to have it to stay in business,” Joe said.

They keep harvest preparation as simple as possible.

“Mostly we use various rates of gramoxone,” David said.

“We may wait for frost in some fields,” Mark said. “With the late crop, we may spot spray. We can do a lot with gramoxone.”

“We have a lot of combinations to drop leaves and open bolls,” David said. “But timing is critical.”

Mark said a big part of any farmer's success comes after the crop is harvested.

“We have a good gin,” he said. “Associated Cotton Growers ginned 109,700 bales last year. Randy Arnold, gin manager, did a good job getting that much cotton through.”

David said Arnold cooperates with farmers to keep varieties separated.

“He makes sure it's done right,” Mark adds. “He always does an excellent job of cleaning out between varieties.”

Mark said they'll keep looking at variety plots and selecting new ones that fit a need on their farm.

“Drought resistant cotton would be a good research target,” Joe said.

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