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Southwest High Cotton winners focus on soil and water savings

One overriding philosophy dictates how Jackie, Terry and Rickie Burris manage their Wellman, Texas, cotton farm, an admonition they remember from their father.

“He said, ‘There's only one way to do a thing,’” Jackie recalls. “Do it right.’”

“We try to follow that counsel. We take a lot of pride in our cotton and never want to be in a position where we would not want people to see our farm. We're proud of it.”

That pride shows in their commitment to conserve resources and make the most profitable and best quality cotton possible. It also earned the Burris brothers this year's Farm Press/Cotton Foundation High Cotton award for the Southwest. They will receive the award at the Beltwide Cotton Conferences in Atlanta.

Producing cotton in West Texas, on a sandy loam soil that tends to blow and cut seedling cotton to pieces and with a water table that shows disturbing signs of depletion, demands a strong commitment to conservation.

Reduced tillage, cover crops, rotation and wise use of available moisture through efficient irrigation give the Burris brothers a fighting chance against an often harsh environment.

Reduced tillage

“Our sandy soil is highly erodible,” Jackie says. “We use minimum tillage on almost all our irrigated acreage and do everything we can to keep the land from blowing. The land is our livelihood, so we take care of it.”

“Once we let a field start blowing it's hard to control it until we deep plow again,” Terry says.

“We try to sand fight every acre that needs it,” says Rickie. “We'll have six or seven sand fighting implements at work at the same time.”

A wheat cover crop keeps the soil in place and the stubble protects seedling cotton from blowing sand.

“As soon as we harvest cotton we plant wheat in the blanks, between the rows. We leave the seedbed open,” Jackie says. “We grow the wheat all winter and may water it once or twice, just enough to keep it growing but as little as possible to conserve water. We want just enough vegetation to cover the soil and we kill it as quickly as we can after we establish a cover.”

“The quicker we terminate the wheat, the sooner we begin to limit moisture losses,” Terry says.

Roundup Ready cotton makes minimum till feasible. They apply Roundup over the top when the cotton is small and use a Red Ball hooded sprayer later in the season. “The hooded sprayer is important,’ Terry says. “We don't cultivate because we kill feeder roots and hurt yield.”

“We use Roundup Ready varieties on all our no-till acreage,” Jackie says. “We don't use it on all dryland acreage because we don't need it there.”

“If we prepare the land properly on conventional acreage and use herbicides judiciously, we don't have weed problems,” Terry says.

They apply Treflan in the open seedbed, right after they terminate the wheat and chisel in fertilizer. They also band Treflan and broadcast Prowl over the top and water it in on irrigated acreage. “We want it just wet enough to germinate the seed,” Rickie says. “Some years we need more and some we need less.”

“Our biggest concern is that the soil will dry out on us after we plant,” Jackie says. “The soil is a bit more prone to drying out in wheat stubble. That's why we don't use this system on dryland acreage. We don't get enough rainfall to assure us we'll have adequate moisture following the cover crop.”

“We could plant dryland cotton into wheat stubble and wait for rain, but that's too risky,” Terry says.

Moisture conservation

Stretching a limited water supply also challenges the Burris brothers.

“Our water table is weakening,’ Jackie says. “Most wells in the Southern Plains are pumping less water than they were just five years ago. That's why we like LEPA (Low Energy Precision Application). We can use the same amount of water per acre and produce better yields with LEPA than with conventional center pivot systems, even though our conventional units use low drop nozzles, two to two-and-a-half feet above the ground.”

As they replace older center pivot units they switch to LEPA. “We have 13 LEPA systems now and 12 standard,” Terry says.

“We use drag hoses or socks on the LEPA units,” Rickie says.

“We also follow circle row patterns,” Terry says. “That works well to conserve soil and moisture. We use row dikes to hold water. We do everything feasible to stretch our water supply.”

They use irrigation to improve fertilizer application efficiency.

“We apply fertilizer through the system or chisel every other row and that's where the water goes. Dry rows will not pick up nutrients.”

Jackie says irrigation gives them a lot of flexibility. “We spoon feed nutrients, especially nitrogen, through the system all season. If we have a good crop coming along, we may push a little harder, if not, we add less fertilizer and lower the investment.”

The Burris farm includes 3,000 acres of irrigated cotton and 2,000 dryland acres.

“We also grow milo on about one-fourth our non-irrigated acreage,” Terry says. “Over the years, milo rotation has kept cotton yields up. We also are considering taking one-third or one-fourth of a circle out of cotton, plant wheat for harvest and then use the stubble next spring to seed cotton into. We would idle the land for almost a year and should improve cotton yield.”

BWEP benefits

The Burris farm has benefited from the Boll Weevil Eradication Program, now in its second year in their zone. “It saved our hides,” Jackie says.

“Before, when we sprayed for boll weevils we killed all the beneficials,” says Terry.

They say 2001 was the easiest season for insect control in years.

“We use two professional entomologists, James Powell and Mark Scott, to scout our cotton,” Jackie says. “We've relied on them since the late '70s and we have a lot of confidence in them.

“We have numbers to justify everything we invest in a crop and we recommend that farmers hire professional scouts unless they are very good at scouting for insects.”

“We're too busy farming to check fields as often as we need to,” Terry says. “And we have to know where the thresholds are.”

Jackie says they try to do everything in cotton on a timely basis. Harvest pushes them.

“We have to keep things going,” Terry says. “All our landlords want their acreage harvested first and we try to get it out as soon as it's ready. We can make money by using harvest aids and stripping early.”

They use Prep, Def, Cyclone, Accelerate (as a carrier), Finish, and Gin Star. “It just depends on the season,’ Jackie says. “Every field and every year will be different. We get our ag pilot to run tests on what works best, using his experience as a guide. That helps a lot.”

Tough year

The 2001 crop proved a mixed bag for the Burris brothers. Irrigated acreage produced well. “We made some that went more than two bales,” Terry says. “Some made just a bale, but we had very little rain from the first of May until late September.”

Most of their dryland cotton never made a stand until the September rains gave the seed enough moisture to germinate.

“This was the driest summer in years, but we've been in a drought cycle for 10 years,” Terry says.

Cotton, the Burris brothers contend, has been a good crop. ‘It rewards you,” Jackie says. “The more you put into it the more you get out. That may be even more important in a bad year. If we miss our first irrigation or miss one worm spray, we know it the rest of the year.”

“If we miss sand fighting when we really need it, cotton gets sand burn and never completely comes out of it,” Terry says.

The brothers work as a team with fairly defined roles. Jackie tends to the business chores. Rickie takes care of the mechanic work and Terry keeps the tractors going and works with irrigation systems.

“We're all hands-on managers,” Jackie says. “We run the strippers and do the planting. When the work needs to be done, we're all out here together.”


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