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Innovation improves cotton profitability

Some of his neighbors said it was innovative; others said it was insane, but regardless of what you call it planting conventional, non-transgenic cotton on marginal land paid off nicely in 2009 for Garysburg, N.C., grower David Grant.

Tiptonville, Tenn., grower John Lindamood got a similar response when he talked about going low tech with basic GPS equipment to develop management zones to reduce input costs on his cotton crop. Though he continues to tweak the system, it remains low tech and it remains profitable.

Using fertilizer placement and innovative rotations instead of nematicides to reduce a reniform nematode problem seemed like a stretch for Wilson, Texas grower Stacy Smith. It was a stretch until he made it work. Now its a commonly used practice on land with high reniform nematode populations .

Like most western cotton growers, Queen Creek, Ariz., cotton farmer Steve Sossaman fights a constant battle for water. When politics didn’t work, Sossaman adapted a simple drip irrigation strategy to his in-furrow production, combined it with clever rotations, saved water and built up soil nutrition to boot.

Speaking at the recent Beltwide Cotton Conference in New Orleans, each grower gave an overview of how they used some innovative thinking to improve the overall profitability of their farming operations.

“I farm in northeastern North Carolina, near the Virginia line and Interstate 95. Our farm is about as far north as cotton is produced in the South. When three neighbors and I planted 600 acres of conventional, non-genetically altered cotton some of our other neighbors thought we were far from ‘innovative’, Grant says.

About 20-30 percent of his land is what he calls 600 pounds an acre cotton land. It’s marginal land right on the break between the Piedmont and Coastal Plain of North Carolina. Typically, this part of his farm has red clay, gravel, and rocks that simply isn’t capable of producing high yields of cotton.

This time last year, he and two of his neighbors were doing what farmers do — talking about the high price of inputs, the low price of cotton, the unpredictability of weather and trying to figure out what to do next.

They had similar areas of marginal land on their farms. “All of us had planted beans on this kind of land the past few years, with not much to show for it. We could get by most years with the counter-cyclical payments on cotton, but higher cotton prices and little or no counter-cyclical payments would be a losing proposition.

“Planting $500 a bag cotton seed on 600 pounds an acre cotton land just didn’t seem to make much sense. We decided to plant some non-transgenic, conventional cotton. Our thinking was that four generations of farmers before us could make a living farming non-transgenic cotton, we should be able to do it,” Grant says.

The first problem was finding seed. After a lot of looking, they found enough seed to plant from a company in Texas. Among the three of them they ordered five pallets of seed and planted 600 acres of cotton with no technology in it.

“We had $15.60 an acre in seed, which worked nicely with our economic formula. Even with crop insurance on 600 pounds per acre cotton land, you aren’t guaranteed but $300 per acre. And, with the low cost seed, we figured we could get to June with about $200 in the crop.”

The low input cost gave the North Carolina growers some leeway. Grant says they figured they could get to June, then make a decision on whether to keep going. If we got a poor stand or it didn’t rain or we had a hail storm or some other weather-related problem, we could cut back on input costs and stay under the $300 break even on this marginal land, he explains.

“On our good cotton land, we planted Bollguard2/Roundup Ready Flex seed. As it turned out the conventional cotton yielded well, and we ended up with an extra 600 acres of cotton to run through the gin. We will do some things a little different this year, but we will definitely plant more conventional cotton,” Grant says.

“Probably the most amazing thing about our experiment with non-transgenic cotton has been the interest in how we did it by other farmers. We got rains at the right time, and we were fortunate in the timing of our herbicide applications, but overall, it was a big success,” he adds.

Lindamood farms about 2,500 acres of cotton in northwest Tennessee along the Mississippi River.

Over the past 20 years, he has experimented with different row patterns, cropping systems, cover crops and most anything that would help manage the challenge of widely varying soils.

Currently about 90 percent of his cotton is planted no-till, on 30-inch rows. About half is bedded and half is on the flat.

“My idea of precision farming is any process that gives you the ability to manage your crop in a site specific manner. It can be high tech or low tech and run the gamut of expensive to inexpensive.

“We started out by taking GPS-based soil samples to create field boundaries and overlaying that with USDA soil maps. Then, we created management or sampling zones, based on topography, drainage and soil types.

“At that time we had no variable rate technology, but we accomplished variable rate application of lime and potash simply by using land marks and changing rates manually as we went through the field. It was low tech and low cost, but it worked,” he recalls.

The next step was using remote imagery that senses biomass of plants. It had been around a long time, but there was no good delivery system. “We used a web-based system that used aerial imagery that represents seven different classes of growth.

“Using this system we can go to the field, use plant mapping and field observations in various management zones. With these inputs we can decide on treatments and requests prescriptions, download these and send them directly to the applicator.

“Using this type low-tech approach doesn’t require you to be rocket scientist or a computer whiz. I had basically no computer training when we started. One of our employees had similarly little training and now does most of the work with this system,” Lindamood says.

“There is plenty of good low-cost, user friendly technology out there, and I encourage anyone who wants to improve the value of their inputs and reduce labor costs to take a look at some of these programs,” he adds.

Stacy Smith says they had one farm in their operation a few years back that began to show a consistent and dramatic decrease in cotton yield. “In our area of west Texas fertility and water problems aren’t unusual, and that’s what we thought was causing the problem,” he recalls.

“We found something a little more difficult was the problem. Our samples for nematodes came back without a number for reniform nematodes. We never get a number on this farm — it’s always ‘too numerous to count’.

“For five years on that land, our program included 120 units of nitrogen, 5-7 pounds of Temik per acre, plus 17 ounces of Vydate over-the-top during the growing season. That kind of input produced a five-year average yield of 492 pounds per acre, which is just not economically feasible,” Smith says.

“Reniform nematodes forced us to go to a grain rotation. We knew we couldn’t eliminate these pests, but we hoped to lower populations enough to allow us to grow cotton,” he adds.

“We reasoned that the lowest levels of reniform nematodes would be directly on top of old grain sorghum stubble, because it is a reniform nematode resistant plant. The next step was to apply 250 pounds of dry fertilizer blended with a yellow herbicide, rolled into a small bed onto 12-16 inch tall milo stalks left standing after harvest.

“Three to four weeks prior to cotton planting, we cut the milo stalks and used a fertilizer coulter to apply 32 units of nitrogen into the seed bed. A conservation disk on the planter cleaned off the remaining trash. We rolled this into a 40-inch furrow area, which helps greatly with soil and wind erosion.

“Reniform nematodes are root inhibitors, therefore, if you have your fertility 20 inches away from the plant, the chances of it being used by the plant during the growing season is not good. By getting fertilizer in the seed bed, close to the plant, combined with rotation with a reniform nematode resistant crop, we were able to manage nematode populations sufficiently to grow a good cotton crop,” Smith says.

On the same land that produced a five-year average of 492 pounds of cotton, Smith produced 1,200 pounds per acre and $383 per acre more in gross revenue last year.

Steve Sossaman farms the same land his family has farmed for nearly a hundred years. As a fourth generation farmer, he faces the same problem — water. Any way to conserve water is highly desirable and doing so without negative impact on crops is an ongoing goal for desert cotton farmers.

In the 1970s, they used laser-leveling on all their fields and reduced water usage by over 30 percent. “We are fortunate to have a number of cropping options, hence crop rotation options, and we’ve experimented with plenty of them in an attempt to conserve water,” Sossaman says.

“We have sandy soils, little rainfall and a chronic lack of organic matter in our soils.” When drip irrigation came into vogue, Sossaman looked at several different types. “I wanted to find a way to save water and some how improve the quality of our soil,” he says.

“I began to look at ways to incorporate drip irrigation equipment to furrow irrigation. This would force me to adopt technology and, hopefully, reduce water usage and increase soil productivity,” he adds.

He developed a system to place drip lines directly into the furrow. He cuts the cotton stalks and uses a root puller to pull stalks right out of the ground. Then, he uses a wide-bed disk to rip, disk and re-hip beds in one operation.

The immediate result of his in-furrow drip system was to reduce time, labor and fuel costs and maximize water use. This system also leaves residue on top of the ground, which tripled the organic matter in his soil over the next 6-8 years.

“We embrace technology, adapt it to our operation, try it on small acreage first, then use what works best in our operation,” Sossaman says.

As these four farmers have found, innovation is often the trump card against high input costs.

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TAGS: Cotton
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