Bruce Bond’s optimism is refreshing, especially when it’s so easy to get bogged down by cotton’s high-cost squeeze or a spell of bad weather. His upbeat approach to profitability, conservation and quality is why he was named the 2005 High Cotton award winner for the Mid-South.
Bond, who farms 1,760 acres of cotton and 135 acres of soybeans, grew up on a row crop and cattle farm in northwest Arkansas, graduated from the University of Arkansas at Monticello. He has farmed on his own since 1977.
Profitability in cotton production begins with variety selection, according to Bond. He runs an Ashley County cotton variety trial on his farm in cooperation with the Ashley County Extension Service, which gives him a firsthand look at how varieties perform. “I harvest the trial myself, and I write down what I like and dislike about different varieties. I use that information to select varieties for the next season.”
For Bond, yield is the primary driver of variety selection. His average yield from 2000-2003 was 1,135 pounds of lint per acre, compared to average yields for Ashley County of 951 pounds. This year, before rains put a stop to picking, no field had picked less than 1,500 pounds.
Bond is aware of the cotton export market’s demand for high-quality cotton, one reason he’s looking at FM 960 BR. “If the yield is good, within 10 to 15 percent of DP 555 BG/RR, and the fiber quality is good, we will raise more of it. But the management is different. You have to be careful with plant growth regulators with FM 960 BR.”
To cut costs and widen his profit margin, Bond has cut back his seeding rate. “We’re pretty sure we’re going to get a stand, so we look for nine to 10 seeds every 3 feet.
“When we went to minimum-till, we started seeing better emergence of the seed. When we rip and hip in the fall, we have a firmer seedbed than if we disk three to four times and row it up in the spring.”
Wider equipment has also helped Bond reduce input costs. “Last year, I bought a transport load of diesel in February to do our spring work. That took me to about the first of June. “This year, we went to 12-row equipment, and we didn’t have to buy diesel until we started picking. We ran all year on that one load.”
In addition, Bond cultivates “only where we furrow-irrigate, and the rest of the time, we run the row hoods. That saves 4,000 to 5,000 gallons of diesel.”
In nominating his father for the award, Jason Bond, a rice agronomist at the LSU AgCenter’s Rice Research Station in Crowley, La., wrote, “He lives by the motto that he should leave the land in better condition than he found it. This creed reaches all facets of his operation from recycling to land-forming.”
Bond uses some form of minimum tillage on 100 percent of his operation. Most fields consist of silt loam soils which are low on organic matter and compact easily.
“We try to disturb the soil as little as possible,” Bond said. “We do a lot of work in the fall when we can. We follow ripper/hippers with a do-all and a planter. My fields haven’t had a disk in them in 10 in 12 years, except to smooth up the ruts or to disk down to landplane.”
Bond employs a tailwater recovery system which directs water to a large canal used as a reservoir to irrigate an additional 120 acres of cotton. He worked with landowners from Portland Gin Co. on an extensive network of underground pipe to reduce water use and deliver water to fields more efficiently than surface lines. He also relies on three center pivots for irrigation.
Bond is selective about pesticides used on the farm. “I always want to be safe. I don’t like for me or my guys to handle harsh chemicals. I work with them everyday. I’m not a turnrow farmer. I drive a tractor or a picker, too.”
Bond’s wife, Linda, is a retired schoolteacher and full-time grandmother. Bond’s daughter, Susan Book, is a pharmacist in Greenville, Miss. She and her husband, Melvin, have two children, Miranda, 7, and Makaila, 3, “who is going on 15.” Jason’s wife, Robin, who also has training in agriculture, began graduate work at the University of Arkansas while living in Fayetteville, and plans to continue graduate studies.
Shep Morris doesn’t follow the crowd when making decisions that affect his central Alabama farming operation. It’s a trait that has served him well over the years.
He was the first producer in his area to use minimum-tillage and cover crops over his entire farm, and one of the first to apply chicken litter as fertilizer. He was one of the first to incorporate Roundup Ready technology into his entire cotton crop. And, in recent years, he has made the transition back to conventional cotton varieties to improve quality and turnout. This willingness to embrace change, even if he finds himself alone doing it, has helped earn Morris the 2005 High Cotton Award for the Southeast Region.
Morris has worked over the years to perfect a dryland, minimum-tillage system that works for his unique and diverse soil types and geographical regions. His 1,300 acres of cotton and 1,000 acres of corn are spread over about 40 miles and several different soil types in Macon and Montgomery counties.
“We’re not quite at a 50-50 corn-cotton rotation, but that’s what we’re working towards,” he said. “Corn pulls phosphorus from the soil. Cotton pulls potassium. Grain contributes nitrogen and phosphorus while the stalks leave 0.5 percent potash and 1 percent nitrogen, which is what the cotton needs. By bedding the corn stubble, nitrogen and potash are built up for the cotton.” Morris re-hips his cotton land every fall, putting out potash and phosphorus or chicken litter.
In 1996, when the farm program changed, Morris stopped growing sorghum sudangrass and planted about 150 acres of corn. “It did pretty well, so we gradually increased our corn acreage. It has been a nice fit for us,” he said. “When we had the set-aside program back in the 1980s and early 1990s, we could plant 50-92 — we could plant 52 percent of our base and draw 92 percent of the payment. We would take about 25 to 30 percent of our ground out of cotton and plant sorghum sudan grass on it in the summer. We’d mow it once, let it grow again, and use it to build organic matter. Then, we’d no-till cotton into it.”
Generally speaking, corn cleanses the soil, said Morris. “A lot of seedling diseases and nematodes attack cotton but can’t survive in corn. The corn leaves a lot of dry matter, but it also has a fibrous rather than a woody root system like cotton. It softens the ground, especially our hard ground that tends to crust in the spring.”
In the fall, Morris plants rye as a cover crop over all of his acreage. “Before we began planting no-till, we were planting rye and vetch together. The growth was getting away from us, so we changed to wheat and learned to do a better job of managing it. We went back to rye because it grows better in cool weather and it suppresses nematodes.”
In the early fall after corn is harvested, he applies a glyphosate product to prevent weeds from going to seed. “We don’t have the severe insect problems we once did, but the plane is still a very useful tool.”
Morris has had great success in recent years using poultry litter as fertilizer. “We’ve been putting out poultry litter for three or four years. We put it out in the fall, bedding it up ahead of cotton. Then we put it out on corn in the spring to better utilize the nitrogen. It’s great for supplying phosphorus and potash. We learn something new each time we use poultry litter. We’re getting some residual nitrogen from the litter, which is very good considering the cost of nitrogen fertilizer.
“But we have to be aware of the residual properties and manage them. With cotton, we need to be prepared to knock it back. It’s not a bad problem to have, but it’s something we need to be aware of. Litter is a very good value for the amount of money we’re spending.”
Morris’ cotton weed control program begins in February when he applies 2,4-D, at 1 pint per acre, taking out all broadleaf weeds and other weeds that can’t be controlled by glyphosate. Then, he monitors the height of his rye cover crop.
“We apply glyphosate and burn down the cover. Then, at planting time, we put out 50 units of nitrogen mixed with Gramoxone. Behind the planter, we put out a half pound of Cotoran and a half pound of Caparol mixed together. We put out a little pyrethroid with that for controlling cutworms. That’s a necessity in no-till production.”
Just as cotton is cracking the ground, Morris goes over the top with 1 pint of MSMA. That keeps weeds under control until the sixth true-leaf stage. “Then, we apply Envoke and spot-spray as needed with Fusilade for johnsongrass and bermudagrass. We layby with a pound of MSMA and a pound of Caparol. In particularly tough spots, we use Suprend, Caparol and Envoke mixed together.”
For cotton insect control, he usually treats for thrips when he makes his over-the-top weed treatment. “Cruiser goes out with the seed, and then we treat over-the-top as needed. It has been effective, especially with conventional cotton varieties. We spray for plant bugs early on, as needed.
As harvest approaches, he applies Touchdown and 4 ounces of DEF at about 50 to 60 percent open bolls. “It opens the plant, and we get good regrowth control. If there are any weeds in the field, they won’t go back to seed. After about seven days, we apply 1 quart of Prep and about 1 ounce of Gramoxone. That’ll rip open the cotton and remove any remaining leaves. It works only on conventional cotton varieties.”
Morris and his wife, Rite, have two sons and a daughter — Shep Jr., J.W. and Beverly — and all are involved in the farming operation, including scouting for insects in the summer.
Mike Tyler never expects his reduced tillage cotton yields to equal production from traditional fields. He expects it to be better. And he’s rarely disappointed. He’ll average more than three bales per acre most years and some fields push five bales.
Tyler, who farms in several Texas counties near Lamesa and Seminole, believes in eliminating as much tillage as possibly, using a cover crop to protect soil from wind and water erosion, applying irrigation water as efficiently as possible and making the highest yield of the best quality cotton he can grow. His efforts earned him the 2005 Southwest Farm Press High Cotton Award.
Tyler is no newcomer to reduced tillage systems. He began cutting back cultivation before the advent of Roundup Ready cotton varieties. “But herbicide-resistant technology certainly has made it easier,” he said. He uses both Roundup Ready and Liberty Link cotton varieties and never puts a plow in irrigated fields after planting, “unless we have some kind of chemical breakdown or something else goes amiss. I have a John Deere minimum-till cultivator that I now use only to build beds.
“Minimum tillage is my preferred way to plant,” Tyler said. “Old crop stubble stays in place most of the year, so I don’t see soil washing out of my fields with hard rains. I preserve a lot of soil with reduced tillage.” He goes so far as to keep corners that irrigation systems miss in the CRP. “I rarely raise a crop in corners,” he said. “Everything I do is geared to take advantage of irrigated acreage and to protect the irrigated crops.” He irrigates 80 percent of his cotton and peanut acreage.
Tyler likes peanuts for rotation and usually has 25 percent peanuts and 75 percent cotton. Tyler’s system begins as soon after cotton harvest as possible. “I leave cotton stalks standing and drill wheat between the furrows, four rows of wheat. That’s all I do in the fall. I don’t disturb the land again until the first of April, when I shred stalks to about 3 to 5 inches tall.”
By early April the wheat cover crop is 12 to 16 inches tall. “Blowing sand is not a problem with the cover,” he said. Tyler pointed out a row of sand fighters in his equipment yard that he rarely uses any more. With a strong wheat crop he may need another herbicide application and possibly another trip with the rolling cultivator to manage the residue.
He likes to plant cotton from April 25 until May 5. He then may apply a shot of Staple and Roundup through his spray rig. He applies nitrogen fertilizer through the pivot. He’s also been frugal with water resources. One 400-acre field typically made two-bale cotton. He divided the field in half, left one-half out of production and in wheat stubble and planted cotton on the other half.
Tyler said in some years minimum-till production may require more water than conventional cotton, but over the long term, he’s convinced reduced tillage builds water resources. “With a cover crop, some years we have to water wheat to get it up and may have to water it in the winter to keep it going. But with normal rainfall, the cover helps hold moisture in the field.”
He prefers to water heavily and then rest the system, his labor and himself. “With capacity for 750 gallons per minute, I adjust the system to apply 1.5 inches at a time. I run the system four or five days a week and then rest it and us over the weekend.
“With a 400- to 500-gallon irrigation system, I run seven days a week. I don’t have the luxury for a breakdown with the smaller package. But when I can irrigate five days a week, I have time to catch up if I have a problem. Also, the wells have a chance to recharge some.”
He’s convinced reduced tillage has been a big factor in boosting yields from a two-bale average to better than three bales, with some fields routinely more than five bales. But he also credits better varieties with improved production and quality. He’s currently planting Americot, Stoneville and FiberMax cotton.
He’s also selective about land. “I put a lot of land in CRP,” he said. “It just makes sense to take that land out of cotton. I choose small and odd-shaped fields for CRP and put all my corners in as well.” He’s equally committed to reduced-tillage peanuts. “I don’t cultivate peanuts. I spray a lot, use 2,4-DB a good bit, and with heavy weed pressure I may hoe.”
Tyler is part owner of the Oasis Gin in Gaines County, Texas. “We ginned the largest number of bales of any gin in Texas last year,” he said. “We ran 84,637 bales through and that was the second time we earned the honor. We ginned 68,394 bales in 1999.” He expects the gin will handle 100,000 bales from the 2004 crop, expected to be a state record cotton year.
He’s also working to improve quality. “The last few years we’ve seen some of the best quality ever,” he said. “Part of the reason is better varieties. We’re getting longer staple than we used to with standard stripper cotton varieties. But we take some risks with picker-type cotton. We can lose a lot of it in a just a few hours, but it’s a better option for production and quality. We get a better price for it.”
Tyler said farmers have to decide for themselves whether reduced tillage will fit on their farms. He’s sold on it and uses some sort of reduced-tillage system on all fields, except those he’s farming for the first time. “I may have to farm it a year to get it straightened out enough so minimum-till will work,” he said.
“It’s a hard sell to some folks, especially for a cover crop. But for me, reduced tillage means less time, fewer inputs and more yield.”
Mike Cox was a two-year-old toddler when his father, Don, grew the Cox family’s first Imperial Valley, Calif., cotton crop in 1952, beginning a cotton tradition that has continued almost endlessly for more than a half century.
Almost only because one year the voracious silverleaf whitefly drove the Cox family out of cotton. However, they jumped right back in when control efforts were developed. Many others never returned.
The Cox family relishes the challenges of growing desert cotton and have done it well for decades, overcoming adversities that made more than a few of their neighbors sell their pickers.
Mike and his younger brother, Larry, grew up in a cotton-farming family and as youngsters earned money working on the farm. However, their father “never encouraged” his two sons to go into cotton farming as careers, “but I never discouraged them either,” said the 77-year-old Cox.
Mike grew his first crop in 1972. “I made 4.6 bales on my first cotton crop and did not know anything. I got 80 cents a pound for it, too.” recalled Mike. The year before the cotton price was about 40 cents.
“I have been trying to hit that combination of high prices and high yields ever since,” laughed Mike. He has hit those yields, recording 5.44 bales two years ago. It is the high prices that have eluded him and all other growers. Mike admits candidly that without the federal farm program, even high yields would not cover his costs.
Mike has been well-schooled. He consistently and economically makes high yields and has earned the respect of his fellow growers. That is why Mike Cox of Brawley, Calif., is this year’s Farm Press/Cotton Foundation Far West High Cotton Award winner.
Cotton growing was relatively simple for several decades after Don Cox grew his first crop. It is a considerably more formidable challenge today. Proof of that is in the fact that in the mid-1970s more than 120,000 acres of cotton were produced in the desert valley. In 2004 only 8,600 acres were produced. Costs have driven down the acreage with the biggest bill being the one to control insect pests.
Cox has become an Imperial Valley cotton-farming survivor by learning how to control pests economically while coaxing the highest economical yields practical. High yields have kept Cox in the cotton business.
“I have to produce 4.5 to five bales of cotton each year just to survive because of the costs we have,” said Cox, 54. It is a challenge every year when he plants the seed.
Mike does not know his final 2004 yields because it was an uncharacteristic wet fall. He has picked enough to figure he has made his 4.5- to five-bale target. For the previous four seasons he averaged 5.38 bales in 2000, 4.7 bales in 2001, 5.44 bales in 2002, and 2.84 bales in 2003.
Silverleaf whitefly drove Mike and many other desert growers out of cotton in 1992 and 1993, but he jumped back in when abatement strategies were developed and new chemistry was introduced to bring the whitefly under control. Before whitefly it was boll weevil, budworm-bollworm and pink bollworm. Today it is lygus.
Mike’s passion for the crop does not overshadow the reality that it must make money on his farm. Right now cotton profits are carrying several of his other crops. Besides cotton, Mike also produces sugar beets, durum wheat, sudangrass, alfalfa, canola seed, and seed onions. He farms about 1,000 acres and also farms in partnership with his dad, his brother, and other family members.
It takes more effort to grow cotton than most other desert crops, but said Planters Ginning Co. manager Bob Bedwell, “Mike always puts in the extra effort with his cotton crop. He does what he is supposed to do when it needs to be done. He is a real hands-on cotton producer.”
Herman Meister, agronomy farm advisor for the University of California Cooperative Extension and a former independent pest control adviser, said Cox’s “hands-on management approach and keen field observations have helped him make the correct decisions on all the crops he grows.” Meister nominated Cox for the High Cotton Award.
Cox was an early adopter of Bt and Roundup Ready technology to reduce pesticide use and lower his bottom line, said Meister. His IPM practices include using least-disruptive pesticides to suppress pest populations, and he organizes his alfalfa harvest to mitigate lygus movement out of alfalfa and into cotton.
Mike has seen several evolutions in cotton production as a youngster growing up in Imperial as well as a veteran producer, but none captured the imagination of producers like the plant growth regulator Pix.
“I have been working with it for 10 years to avoid excessive growth and set more cotton,” said Mike. It has also been a contributing factor in spacing plants closer and in production practices like planting two rows per bed or ultra-narrow row cotton, a concept introduced into Imperial by a San Joaquin Valley cotton producer.
Now with Bt varieties to ward off late-season pink bollworm, desert cotton growers can stretch the season for higher yields.
Make that stretch the two seasons in one year.
Cox says timely planted and well-managed cotton will set 2.5 to as much as three bales early in the season before it goes into infamous cutout when the heat literally suffocates the plants and they stop growing — with many more weeks of growing season left.