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Rising input costs signal harder choices

Cutting corners in cotton production makes little sense to Kress, Texas, farmer Barry Evans.

But he never spends money he doesn't expect to get back.

“Anything that will not make a return on my investment I've gotten rid of,” Evans said. “I'm not trying to make the highest yield in the area. I just want to see a return.”

Penciling in a profit may prove difficult this year as he looks at higher costs for fuel, fertilizer and seed. “It's a tough process,” he said. “All those price increases comes right off our bottom line.”

Nevertheless, he said cutting back on primary inputs such as fertilizer, seed technology and water makes no sense. Making a profit on the 2005 crop depends a lot on appropriate in-season timing for weed control, insect management, fertility and irrigation, he said. “Good weather will help, too.”

He said an 800-pound per acre yield is break even for irrigated cotton.

He's already switched to a system he said does more than anything to reduce production costs.

“Less tillage has been huge,” he said. “I save a lot of fuel and wear on equipment. I'm probably running tractors only 300 to 400 hours a year. That's a big cut.”

He said reduced tillage saves on water costs, too. “Water accounts for the biggest fuel use. When we cultivate crops we plow up moisture and lose it. We want to save all we can. Most of the rain we get in this area comes in one-tenth to three-tenth increments, so we need to hold it all in the field. Not plowing helps do that.”

Annual rainfall in the High Plains of Texas averages about 20 inches a year. “We're trying to farm with less water,” Evans said.

Rotation plays a crucial role in the no-till system. He plants half his acreage in cotton and half in grain sorghum each year. “I plant cotton in grain sorghum stubble,” he said. “After I harvest grain sorghum, I use a single gang stalk cutter.”

That's the extent of fall tillage most years.

He uses row cleaners ahead of a John Deere Max-Emerge planter. “I tried a lot of things (to move crop residue),” he said. “But this is a simple process.”

Grain sorghum, most years, produces excellent crop residue to add organic matter to the soil and to hold soil during the winter and with spring dust storms. “One reason we went to no-till was to keep dust storms down,” Evans said. “We haven't broken any land in several years.”

That could change with one problem field that tends to silt a bit, even with crop residue and no-till. The field is sandier than most of his acreage and he said it was damaged years ago from erosion that stripped the topsoil. The field has less organic matter than other fields. He thinks a hardpan also could be hindering crop production.

“I'm thinking about breaking the land to shatter that layer,” he said.

“Some farmers say a field needs to be broken regularly to prevent that hard layer,” Evans said. “I haven't plowed anything since 1996. Controlled traffic patterns help prevent hardpan.”

He said the past few years have been too dry to produce good organic matter. His farm was drier than much of the High Plains last year. “We didn't have a really good year in 2004. Yields in this area were off a bit. Lack of heat units made the biggest difference and I never had more than one-third of an inch of rain at one time until fall. We didn't get those good rains that much of the High Plains had. And weather got too cool in August and September.”

He tried wheat one year as a residue crop. “I harvested the wheat and left the land fallow the rest of the year. The wheat was next to milo field and I compared the two systems.”

He planted cotton into wheat stubble and said the crop looked great. “Soil was quite mellow at planting. Cotton came up to a good stand and looked better than cotton planted in milo. Then it turned dry.”

At harvest, the cotton in wheat stubble made 150 to 200 pounds of cotton. But so did cotton planted in milo. “But the milo never looked as good during the season,” Evans said.

Evans first tried reduced tillage in 1996 and said weeds played havoc with the crop until a hailstorm destroyed the field. “I may have been lucky,” he said. “But the next year I tried again.”

He said he made those first attempts without Roundup Ready technology. “That has made a tremendous difference. I plant all Roundup Ready varieties. I haven't tried Liberty Link but it will have a place.”

As does stacked gene cotton. “I haven't used much stacked cotton yet, but I plan to use more this year. Price for the stacked cotton is not much more than for just Roundup Ready. I could plant as much as 25 percent of my acreage to stacked gene varieties.”

He would prefer to have Bollgard II but said it may not be available in the varieties he wants.

“I always look for the variety first and then I check for traits,” he said.

Even though technology fees for Roundup Ready and Bollgard add significantly to production costs, Evans said improved varieties have been instrumental in increasing yield potential.

“Biotechnology has to be one of the greatest inventions in agricultural history,” he said.

He's looking forward to a batch of new varieties coming out in 2006, with both Roundup Flex and Bollgard II.

I'll depend on Randy Boman (Texas A&M Extension cotton specialist at Lubbock) and his variety trials to select the best options,” Evans said. “I base a lot of decisions on his trials.”

Technology works well with reduced tillage to control costs, he said. Still, some farmers balk at changing equipment and cultural practices. “Farmers converting to reduced tillage need some specialized equipment,” Evans said. “They need a hooded sprayer and a boom sprayer.”

A stalk chopper and a good planter also make his list. “I started out with a drag planter and just switched to a John Deere that's heavy enough to get into the ground. It's a tough change for a lot of farmers. They need to add row cleaners to the front of the planter and that's another $200 to $300 a row. That may keep some producers from adopting no-till.”

Evans uses grain sorghum rotation to save irrigation water and the energy necessary to pump it.

“I use LEPA irrigation and plant half the pivot in cotton and half in grain sorghum. I water the cotton. I might water milo to get it up and maybe occasionally in season, but I save the water for cotton production.”

He said three-fourths of his acreage has irrigation capability and he waters only half that in any given year. “Water is limited and getting more so. We have to conserve it.”

He said High Plains farmers sell water. “We've found that selling it through a cotton crop gives us the best chance at making a profit.”

He expects the next farm bill to include significant conservation incentives. “We see a lot of things we can do to improve water use efficiency,” he said, “but we have to be careful about broad-based changes. Things that work in the High Plains may not work in the Valley or in Far West Texas.”

He expects research to find ways to allow farmers to pump less water and still make decent yields. Water remains his most limiting factor.

“We can do a lot of things wrong with a crop and get a rain at the right time and still do well,” he said.

And while he waits on the rain, he does all he can to save what moisture he has in the soil and to weigh every production expense as carefully as possible to gauge potential return.

It's simple economics, he said.


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