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Texas Gulf Coast farmers adjusting to early season rains

COLLEGE STATION, Texas – You can almost feel the intensity when you walk into one of Andy Scamardo’s cotton fields.

Scamardo laughs when he talks about all the moisture the Texas Gulf Coast has received this year, but it quickly becomes apparent that he’s concerned about the impact of more than 30 inches of rain in late May and June on his cotton.

“We’ve had such extreme amounts of rain that I only watered this field one time, which is very unusual for me,” says Scamardo, who farms in the Brazos River Bottoms just outside College Station.

Most years, Scamardo has irrigated his fields three or four times by now (he was interviewed in mid-July). But the heavy amounts of rain that fell in the Coastal Bend and upper Gulf Coast – some areas had received their total average annual rainfall by June 30 – have created a different kind of stress for growers like Scamardo.

Growers know that cotton doesn’t like to stand in water, but the excess moisture has created additional problems with the DP 555BG/RR full season, stacked-gene variety Scamardo has high hopes for.

“Nitrogen has been an issue for us with 555,” says Scamardo. “I’ve had trouble growing 555 because I like lots of water and lots of nitrogen, and it likes to grow.”

Scamardo has made three applications of Pentia plant growth regulator to the DP 555 plants in this field, which is the location for the variety test Scamardo conducts annually on his farm. He included 12 varieties in the test, which was planted April 4.

“We applied a pint, a pint and a pint,” he said, referring to the scheduling of the Pentia applications, beginning one week before bloom. “As it was, I held off on the Pentia because I was concerned about water stress from too much moisture.”

Scamardo’s yields from DP 555 haven’t been anything to sneeze at. “He averages about 1,700 pounds per acre – not 1,750 pounds,” says Doug Pustejovsky, a technical services agronomist with Delta and Pine Land Co., who has been working with Scamardo in his efforts to boost yields with the Triple Nickel, as some farmers have dubbed it.

Pustejovsky and D&PL sales representative Larry Martin are helping Scamardo conduct a variable rate nitrogen study with DP 555 in a nearby field. Scamardo applied 120 units of nitrogen to the variety test field, which is lower than what he normally applies. (The nitrogen test includes applications of 0, 60 and 120 pounds of N.)

“Andy has a three-bale average with DP 555,” says Pustejovsky. “He consistently produces some of the highest yields in the Brazos Bottoms. But he believes he should be able to produce even higher yields.”

Scamardo says he knows many farmers like DP 555 because it is a full season variety and is thus more forgiving than other shorter season lines. “Some say it’s the best variety they’ve ever seen because they can put less in it and it just keeps producing,” he notes. “I have yields as high with other varieties, but I think DP 555 has potential I’m not tapping yet.”

“The typical grower in this area may irrigate one or two times,” says Pustejovsky. “But Andy doesn’t let his crop stress – he waters it whenever it needs it. Andy thinks he should be able to make four bales an acre with DP 555 with the proper management.

“The objective here is to see if we can improve Andy’s bottom line with less nitrogen and less Pix.”

Yield is not the only issue for Scamardo. Maturing the crop is critically important for upper Gulf Coast farmers who race the calendar every year to harvest their crop before Sept. 1. “Too much nitrogen can push the crop back one to two weeks and delay harvest into September.”

“September is our wettest month of the year,” says Jim Bosch, a technical service agronomist who shares the Texas Gulf Coast region with Pustejovsky. “Once the rains set in or tropical storms hit the coast, yield and quality start deteriorating.”

Besides 200 acres of DP 555, Scamardo is growing 250 acres of ST 4892BR, 250 acres of DP 424BGII/RR and 200 acres of FM800 this year.

Scamardo says that although he realizes there is a place for quality, he emphasizes varieties and practices that produce higher yields. “Give me pounds over quality any day,” he said. “I make more money with higher yields. Unless you’re putting it in the loan, quality doesn’t make that much difference in the price received.”

The Brazos Valley farmer, whose family owns Mid-Valley Cotton Gin near College Station, says he has been impressed with the grades for FiberMax 800.

“I’ve seen enough bales come through the gin with the higher grades that it couldn’t be a mistake,” he said. “It’s been running 38 length, 32 strength and 4.5 mike, which will bring 6 to 7 cents per pound over the loan. But I’m not convinced it will yield as well for me as 555.”

Al Mahalitcs is another upper Texas Gulf Coast farmer who has been trying to prevent his cotton crop from showing too much “irrational exuberance” in 2004.

Mahalitcs, a member of an Eagle Lake family farming operation that includes Arthur and Clara Mahalitc and four of their five sons – Al, Steven, Calvin and Raymond, says the Caney soils they farm have been known to grow a good stalk. (The oldest Mahalitc brother, Anthony, farms on his own in Wharton County.)

“Last year, the stalks grew to a height of 45 inches even though they applied 68 ounces of Pix,” said Bosch, who has been working with the Mahalitcs on a variety demonstration test in one of their fields. “But they average three bales an acre so they’re not complaining.”

Like much of the Texas Gulf Coast, the Mahalitcs received a lot of rain in June (22.6 inches) and in early July (11.25 inches). Al made liberal use of Pentia in 2004 because he and his brothers have seen what can happen when you can’t control the growth on their Colorado River bottom sandy soils.

That was part of the reason they and other farmers in the Eagle Lake area went out of the cotton business in the 1980s and only got back in in 1996 when Bollgard cotton became available to help control bollworms.

“It was more a problem with the growth,” said Al. “We didn’t have Pix back then. This new mepiquat chloride with boron seems to just stop the crop.”

The Mahalitcs variety tests includes 11 new varieties from Delta and Pine Land, Emergent Genetics’ Stoneville brand and Certified FiberMax, replicated three times across the demonstration field. Some of those contain the new Bollgard II gene.

“I like to try new varieties every year,” says Al. “This is the fifth or sixth year we’ve had the variety test plots.”

Weather was also a problem for brothers Ken and Clayton Seggern in the Blacklands area around Thrall, Texas this season.

“We didn’t get planted as soon as we wanted,” said Clayton, whose variety demonstration field was also a stop for a group of Delta and Pine Land Co. agronomists and sales representatives. “It was cold and wet for a long time.”

The demonstration field was planted on April 30. Then, area farmers received 12 inches of rain, or more than a third of their annual rainfall, in June.

“We cut back on nitrogen this year, which turned out to be a good idea given the rainfall we received,” said Ken. “We also planted the seed deeper this year. Last year, it was so dry we planted it like corn – we barely laid it on the ground.”

The Seggern’s demonstration field includes 11 varieties, including some experimentals from Delta and Pine Land.

“Last year, DP 555 BG/RR won the trials with 950 pounds of lint per acre,” said Larry Martin, a D&PL sales representative who has been working with the Seggerns on the demonstration field for 11 years. “DP 444 BG/RR came in second at 900 pounds.”

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