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Young farmer strives for efficient production

At a time when most teenage boys were spending summers lounging at the pool, playing baseball or perfecting their video game techniques, Bobby Asbill was getting a taste for the wonders and woes of row crop farming in Northeast Texas.

He made his first crop the year before he started high school. His next gave him a taste of how fickle agriculture can be.

“My second year was a disaster,” he says. “That's why I don't plant corn any longer.”

He's experienced success and failure since — none worse than his 2005 soybean crop — and, still under 30-years old, continues to refine his operation, and, possibly because of his early exposure to lost investments, watches expenses closely.

He's branching out.

Since 1998, Asbill has considered himself a soybean farmer. He still is but added cotton to the mix this year, fearing that soybeans might burn up again, as they did in 2005.

Rotation helps Asbill keep production costs relatively low. He depends on reduced tillage systems to limit fuel, equipment and labor expenses and he uses residual nitrogen from the bean crop to make cotton.

In late June, he was optimistic about both crops.

“We had a little rain,” says Asbill, who farms in Delta County, Texas. “The soybeans were loading up pretty good and beginning to fill out. I think I've had enough rain to make a cotton crop.”

Asbill says another 2-inch rain would be welcomed but prospects still look considerably better than last year. He started off wet with a 10-inch rain just after he planted soybeans. Some fields washed a bit but did not reduce stands severely. Minimum tillage systems also allowed much of the moisture to seep into the soil instead of running off.

“Since then, I've got just enough rain to keep the crop going.” He expects to be through harvest in late July. “Beans are maturing earlier than usual,” he says. “They are already beginning to turn. I cut wheat a bit earlier than normal.”

It's been a much different start than last year.

“We were dry all summer in 2005,” he says. “We had about 1 inch of rain to plant the crop but most of my soybeans burned up.” He made decent yields in some of his bottomland but higher ground produced little. “Overall, we averaged about 5 bushels per acre,” he says. “That was the driest year I've ever had.”

Asbill says he'll be “happy with 20 bushels per acre” from the 2006 crop. He's hoping for a bale of cotton per acre.

“The cotton showed no sign of stress in late June,” Asbill says. “I think I got plenty of water to make cotton.”

He plans to continue the soybean/cotton mix.

This was the first time he planted cotton but he's been harvesting it for several years. “I probably would not have planted any cotton if I had not had harvest equipment,” he says.

Several years ago a friend was selling out and had a stripper he wanted no longer wanted. Asbill took advantage of a good deal and started custom harvesting. “I stay pretty busy with custom work,” he says. He also bought a used module builder from another friend.

Asbill has survived on hard work and such frugal investments. He keeps costs as low as possible.

“All my soybean and cotton acreage is no-till,” he says. He plants all Roundup Ready soybeans and half Liberty Link and half conventional (All-Tex Top Pick) cotton. He doesn't plant stacked gene cotton. “It's just too expensive for dryland production,” he says.

Liberty Link has worked well. “Ignite does a good job on morningglory.”

Weeds pose one of his biggest challenges. “Insects have not been a problem. I haven't seen stinkbug in soybeans and Boll Weevil Eradication has taken care of cotton pests so far,” he says.

He uses no pre-plant herbicide in soybeans. “I use a burndown before I plant and then Roundup over the top. I have had no problem with that, even late in the season.”

He uses Prowl, Envoke and Select on conventional cotton acreage. “That's worked pretty well.”

His main problems are Johnsongrass and nightshade.

Asbill does not like to plow. He recalls one field where he broke part of the ground with a chisel plow. “The plants where I did not chisel are taller. They didn't lose moisture,” he says.

Soybean residue helps hold down weeds and conserves that moisture. “Soybeans don't leave a lot of cover every year,” he says. “But a big bean crop will leave a lot of residue.”

He's saving money with reduced tillage. He figures energy costs are one of his biggest expenses, up almost 100 percent since last year. “The last diesel we bought was about $2.60 a gallon. Last year, we bought it for $1.60 early, but it went up late in the season.”

Asbill spends $1,000 per day for trucks and two combines during harvest. “When diesel fuel was 45 cents a gallon we could plow anytime we wanted to,” he says. “Reduced tillage means less fuel, less labor and less equipment wear. I see a lot of advantages.

“Also, yield is just as good and probably better in a dry year.”

He's saving on fertilizer, too, with his rotation scheme. “Fertilizer costs have nearly doubled since last year. I'm paying $240 a ton. In 2000, I paid $72 a ton. I use only residual fertilizer for cotton. He picks up nitrogen from the soybean crop. “I may need some phosphate and potassium in two or three years,” he says.

“The best way to grow cotton is to plant it, keep it clean and hold down expenses. In wheat following soybeans I don't need to sidedress nitrogen.”

Asbill, even with limited experience in cotton, sees some disturbing trends in cottonseed production. “Seed has become a primary expense,” he says.

He's also concerned that companies may invest so much money in transgenic varieties they'll abandon conventional cotton. He says dryland farmers, especially, need conventional varieties.

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