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Technology, less tillage helping overcome rising production costs

Reduced tillage, technology and successful boll weevil eradication efforts are helping Altus, Okla., cotton farmer Clint Abernathy win the battle of the balance sheet.

Abernathy, like most Southwest farmers, faces significantly higher production costs as he approaches the 2006 planting season. And, like most, he’s experienced weather problems of one kind or another over the past few years and is looking for production practices that help limit crop losses.

He says energy and fertilizer costs have “more than doubled in the past two years. We can adjust our production practices to lower energy costs some,” he says, “but we can’t cut back on fertility and stay in business.”

He’s working as efficiently as he can to stretch input dollars.

“Reduced tillage has helped,” he says. “So far, we’ve used minimal till mostly on dryland acreage.”

He sometimes plants cotton behind harvested wheat, into the stubble. “That’s been successful,” he says. “We plant a bit later than usual but if we can get cotton in by June 10, we’ll be OK. We don’t have a lot that will go in that late. When we’ve gotten a little rain after planting, we’ve had success.”

He sees several advantages to reduced tillage. “It’s lower input, for one thing. But we also cut down on damage from blowing sand.”

He says Roundup Ready cotton varieties make the system work. “I’ll use some Roundup Ready Flex this year, but supplies will be limited.”

He also plants wheat into cotton stalks after harvest for a winter cover. “I kill the wheat in April to save moisture. That cover helps reduce injury from blowing sand and makes a huge difference. I’ve always heard that a good start on a cotton crop means a good chance of a better finish.”

Oklahoma Extension cotton specialist J.C. Banks says some of the best cotton grown last year was on reduced tillage fields. He says moisture retention was better and stalks and stubble helped protect cotton seedlings from wind, sand and hail damage.

Cover crops did not do well this year. Dry conditions following cotton harvest prevented timely germination and growth. “It’s often hard anyway to get a cover planted in time to get enough growth to do what it’s supposed to do,” Abernathy says. “This year, a lot didn’t come up at all.”

He says a late March rain might bring some wheat out and provide cover. “I left the cotton stalks standing to provide protection.”

Global positioning system technology helps with reduced tillage. “We stay in the same traffic lanes,” he says. “GPS helps keep us on the same lines each year and we don’t need row markers.”

GPS also helped with drip irrigation installation. “We put in 100 acres last year and were real pleased with it. I plan to put in some more this year, 125 acres, perhaps a bit more.”

He justifies the expense of installing drip. “It saves labor and works well with minimum till or no-till systems. Most irrigation in this area is with furrow systems and that takes a lot of labor.”

He says yields the first year were about equal to furrow systems but labor savings made up for a chunk of the costs. “We also lost some of the drip irrigated cotton to 2,4-D drift damage. I think yields with drip irrigation will improve.”

He puts some fertilizer through the system and applied an insecticide through the tape to control aphids. “It takes about 30 minutes to treat the whole field. So we save labor there, too.”

Abernathy says the key to making drip systems work is maintenance and proper installation. “We have to monitor the system and repair leaks.”

He’s using mostly stripper-type cotton varieties in reduced tillage, dryland fields. He harvests those with a stripper but uses a picker for the picker-type varieties, under irrigation. “I’ll plant some picker varieties in dryland fields this year,” he says.

Typically, he plants several varieties including FiberMax 960 and Stoneville 4554, mostly on irrigated land, and Paymaster 2326, mostly on dryland acreage.

“I may increase dryland production, especially behind failed wheat acres. Irrigated acreage will stay the same.”

He makes most of his income from cotton but likes the wheat rotation. “I get rid of a lot of weeds with the wheat crop, especially in winter,” he says.

Abernathy says eliminating the boll weevil as an economic factor also improves profit potential. “I haven’t seen a boll weevil in several years. Years ago, we sprayed as many as 15 times a year to kill weevils and we still lost cotton. Now, we can have a severe drought, get a rain late and still make half-a-bale (dryland) cotton. That’s considerably more than we could have made before boll weevil eradication. A top crop was out of the question.”

He’s also using Bt cotton, “mostly on irrigated acreage but a little on dryland. I’ll use Bollgard II on as many irrigated acres as I can. I used it last year and was impressed. We had to spray some Bollgard I cotton for worms but we never had to treat the Bollgard II.”

He says cotton farmers in his area “would not have survived without genetics and improved technology. Improvements came along just when we needed them. Now, Flex cotton will be a huge benefit, especially in dryland acres.”

In irrigated fields, morningglories cause his biggest weed problems. “I still need a hooded sprayer but the expanded window with Roundup Flex may keep us ahead of them.”

He uses some pre-emergence herbicides. “I don’t use pre-emergence materials behind wheat stubble or on drip fields. I’ll apply Staple after the cotton comes up.”

He may use a pre-emergence material on conventional cotton. “On the rest I’ll use Roundup and Roundup and Staple.”

He anticipates precision agriculture will play a bigger role in farm management in the near future. And he’s concerned about the future. One son, Justin, 24, farms with him full-time. Another, Jared, 21, is at Oklahoma State University and plans to come back to the farm when he completes his degree.

They will carry on a tradition that began with Abernathy’s grandfather. “My dad, who is 82 and still somewhat active on the farm, started farming here after he got back from World War II,” he says.

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