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Young Texas farmer uses technology to save money

Josh Birdwell uses technology to improve efficiency on the farm he operates with his grandfather, James Moss, stretching fuel, fertilizer and chemicals as far as possible as costs to produce cotton, corn, grain sorghum, and wheat soar.

Birdwell says guidance systems on tractors, planters and sprayers, in addition to seed technology, help him and Moss manage those rising costs on their farm in Malone, Texas.

Buying production materials early for the 2008 crop also helped, Birdwell says. “We got in early, prepaid for a lot of stuff and got better prices than we could now.” They saved on fertilizer and “a lot of Roundup. We came out in pretty good shape compared to where prices are now.”

Birdwell was finishing planting 1,200 acres of cotton in late April. The 2,700 acres of corn was up and growing well, as was 1,100 acres of milo. Corn acreage is up a little from last year. “We have 950 acres of wheat and it looks excellent,” he says. “We haven't had to spray for disease so far, and will not unless we see that we need it.”

He says early planted wheat might show some disease pressure. “But we waited and planted in November. We applied 250 pounds of 32-0-0 per acre in January and the crop looks good.”

Birdwell says variety selection is a crucial element for all his crops. Cotton and corn varieties are transgenics.

“Phytogen 370 cotton has done well. I plant a lot of FiberMax 958. I'm also using some FiberMax 9180 Flex this year and I like some of the Liberty Link varieties.”

He started using the Liberty Link cotton in bottomland where he “had trouble with morning glory. I tried it one year and it did a super job. Using those varieties and Ignite herbicide also helps fend off (herbicide) resistance. Ignite does a good job on morning glory and pigweed.”

This will be his fourth year with Liberty Link cotton.

He's not using a yellow herbicide in cotton, though he admits it could help, especially with grasses. “I'm not afraid of weeds (with Roundup Ready and Liberty Link varieties). But if we let grasses get too big, we can get in trouble.”

He says selecting varieties is a crucial step in efficient crop production. “We choose cotton varieties to spread risk. We plant early to early-medium varieties and tend more to the early side. All cotton varieties are stacked gene selections.”

He says Bt cotton was not as big an issue before the Boll Weevil Eradication Program kicked in. “With the eradication sprays, we need Bollgard cotton.”

He's also planting variety trials with FiberMax and Phytogen cotton seed. “Trials are a pain sometimes, but we get a lot of good information from them.”

He says yield and quality are the top considerations in cotton variety options. “I also look for storm tolerance. Varieties available today are a lot better than they were just five years ago,” he says. “It's the same with corn. It's just amazing.”

He plants a lot of Liberty Link corn as well. “All my corn hybrids are Syngenta based, Garst or NK. Milo is mostly Sorghum Partners with a little Garst.”

He looks for bushels per acre in corn hybrids and also ear height. “A lot of our farm is hilly and terraced. So ear height affects harvest efficiency. It's easier to harvest an ear higher up the stalk.”

He plants about half stacked gene corn.

He says 1,000 acres of grain sorghum is typical. “We have had as much as 1,500, but we got away from it a little when grain prices were lower. It looks better now.”

He says grain sorghum has some negatives. “It's more prone to fall than corn and we have fewer weed control options. But it's a little cheaper to grow.”

He likes the grain and cotton rotation. Following cotton with corn allows him to back off a bit on insecticides. “I don't like to go more than two years straight with corn. I have some fields in corn for the third year and I have to spend more money to control corn rootworm. I use Cruiser seed treatment and can use only a light rate with good rotation.”

Global Positioning System technology also helps Birdwell and Moss save money. “I just bought GPS guidance units for two tractors. I've looked at it and knew it was a good tool, but thought it was overpriced and hard to justify. Now, prices are better and, considering the higher costs of diesel and fertilizer, eliminating overlaps doesn't take long to pay for the systems.”

He uses GPS guidance on a sprayer and two tractors. “Auto-steer with fall plowing is a big advantage,” Birdwell says. Applying fertilizer with an auto-steer unit or a light bar improves efficiency. “GPS units also make long hours on a tractor easier on the driver. And we can run at night and not have to worry about where we're going.”

He's not using a yield monitor. “It's coming, but I'm not there yet. It takes time to show an advantage with a yield monitor.” Growers can identify weak and strong spots in fields after reviewing several years' of data from the monitors.

He and his grandfather also are looking at tillage. “We're considering no-till, and cut out several trips across the field this year. We just disked and applied fertilizer.”

He thinks no-till will reduce diesel use even more. “GPS will also help in no-till,” he says, “by allowing us to establish traffic patterns. Total no-till may be hard to accomplish in this area, especially with wheat, but we may be able to cut tillage for periods of time.”

Birdwell came back to the farm after earning a degree in agricultural economics from Texas Tech. “I always wanted to farm. I grew up on the farm and learned a lot about production.”

Ag economics may be the ideal major for a young farmer since a lot of decisions are made in a seat in front of a computer instead of a seat on a tractor. Birdwell says farmers now have to be as efficient as possible with all their inputs. “We're trying to figure out how to use technology to be more efficient. Those units have to pay for themselves.”

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