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SOUTHWEST: Barry Evans: No-till, rotation play key roles for grower on Texas' High Plains

Shortly after he came back to Kress, Texas, to raise cotton and grain sorghum, Barry Evans got caught up in one of those weather phenomena that are all too common in the High Plains.

On his way home from church one spring Sunday, he noticed a cotton field as he drove across an overpass. Newly emerged seedlings were doing well in the warming soil. Rows were straight, moisture was adequate. The crop was off to a good start.

A few minutes later the wind began to stir. The dust began to blow and Evans hitched a rotary hoe to his tractor and worked well into the evening to protect his newly emerged cotton crop.

“Everything blew out,” he says. “I knew we had to find a better way.” He did. The following year he tried no-till.

“The first no-till field was a wreck,” he says. “Cotton came up with weeds. We flew on herbicide and the cotton turned red. But the good Lord smiled on me and sent a hailstorm to wipe it out.”

He stuck with the concept, though, and with the help of Roundup Ready varieties and a good rotation program with grain sorghum has made no-till cotton ever since. His persistence and his commitment to conservation practices helped Evans earn the Southwest Farm Press High Cotton Award for 2007.

Evans follows a strict rotation program, one year in cotton, the next in grain sorghum, and he splits acreage down the middle, 1,000 acres for each crop.

He no-tills cotton into grain sorghum stubble and plants grain sorghum into chopped cotton stalks. “Fields have not been plowed in nine or 10 years,” he says.

He cites three main benefits to no-till cotton and grain sorghum production. “The most important is conserving every drop of water, from rain or irrigation, that falls on the fields,” he says.

“Wind erosion is no longer a problem. The dirt does not blow; water erosion is reduced; we don't lose soil.”

He says water in bar ditches following a heavy rain flows clear. “Rainfall on plowed fields doesn't soak in as fast.”

Evans says worm holes and root channels provide easy access for rain and irrigation water to seep into the soil profile.

“We use less energy with no-till production,” Evans says. “We need less labor and less equipment. We use a shielded sprayer, a boom sprayer, a no-till planter and no-till cultivators (which we don't need often), and we have two tractors we run about 300 hours a year each. The equipment is not cheap, but it lasts longer.”

Evans says biotechnology makes no-till feasible and helps him avoid the kind of wreck he had that first year.

“Roundup Ready made weed control easier and Roundup Flex is good technology. This was the first year we had Flex widely available. I'm sold on it.”

All the varieties he planted in 2006 had the Roundup Flex technology. “I used DPL 117 and 147; BCG 3255, 4021 and 4630; and AFD 37.

“Only the 147 and 37 did not have the Bollgard technology,” Evans says. “I like the insurance I get from Bollgard and it only costs about $10 per acre. If it were more expensive I probably would not plant it.”

He hasn't used a pre-emergence herbicide on cotton since he started using Roundup Flex. “Before Flex, I applied Dual with Roundup at the four-leaf stage. I don't need that with Flex. I can come back later.”

Rotating to grain sorghum also helps with weed control. “I use a completely different system in milo,” he says. “That helps prevent weed resistance.”

He gets other advantages from rotation. “I've been tempted to decrease grain sorghum acreage and plant more cotton or switch to a wheat/cotton rotation. With wheat I'd lose a crop year. And I get organic matter from grain sorghum. That's worth a lot.”

He says grain sorghum needs ample rainfall to produce organic matter. “I use minimal irrigation on grain sorghum and preserve moisture for the cotton. I had to water milo up last spring.”

He's careful with water. “I irrigate two-thirds of my cotton and use a bubbler LEPA system. I don't build furrow dikes. I don't really need them with no-till. The milo residue holds the water.”

He installed the LEPA when he started farming. “I tried drag hoses but changed to bubblers.”

He's concerned about water availability. “It's a big issue and is changing the way we irrigate. Our well levels have dropped about 10 percent a year since we've been farming. That's another reason we don't grow more cotton.”

He says cotton needs 3 gallons of water per acre. “I would not get that much if I added more cotton acreage. I have an economical system.”

He made better cotton on dryland acreage in 2005 than he did under irrigation. Not so in 2006. He expected to make barely 100 pounds per acre on dryland cotton, too much to zero out and too little to offer much incentive.

Evans says the Boll Weevil Eradication Program is another environmental success story. He's served as chairman of the BWEP committee for his zone, which includes 580,000 acres. “We started in 2000 and 2001 was the first full year.”

He says growers are making a better crop and making it with fewer pesticide outlays than they did before the program started. He also believes eliminating the weevil and leaving beneficials helps reduce pressure from other pests. Some farmers expected to see heavy beet armyworm pressure in 2006. It was hot and dry and that often means armyworms develop in south Texas and move into the Plains.

“With the whole state in active eradication now, we spray less and we didn't see the beet armyworms come in from the south.”

Evans didn't start out to be a cotton farmer. He grew up on a farm near his own operation that his father, Billy, still operates. He earned a degree in agricultural business and economics from West Texas A&M and worked as a commodities broker in Amarillo for eight years.

“I enjoyed the work but it was stressful,” Evans says. “I'd come home about 3 p.m. and be zonked. So, when a farm came up for sale in Kress, with a house, I moved back. Now, I don't take it for granted. It's been good.”

Evans is a partner with his father in a grain elevator. He's also vice president of Plains Cotton Growers, Inc., and serves on the Cotton Board. He's been a delegate for the National Cotton Council. “All that takes a lot of time,” Evans says, “but I'm glad to give back to the industry.”

Evans and his wife, Lindy, have three children, Eric, 13; Emily, 10; and Haley, 5.

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