Shawn Holladay would just as soon not experience another cotton growing season like the summer of 2011 — record heat, record drought, high winds and enough frustration to last a lifetime.
But even with the worst growing conditions he’s ever faced, Holladay, who farms near Lamesa, Texas, says his commitment to stay with his production plan and to keep his land worked and ready to make a crop at all times never wavered.
“It’s a business decision,” he says. “It’s best for the long-term health of the farm to keep every acre ready to plant. It’s hard to do in a year like 2011; it’s difficult to spend money just to maintain the land — but it’s good for the business.”
Maximizing profit potential requires keeping the soil in shape, even in bad years, he says. Maintenance includes such prescribed conservation practices as reduced tillage, maintaining terraces, preserving organic matter and using water as efficiently as possible.
Holladay’s adherence to proven conservation and production systems, even under extreme conditions, was among the factors that resulted in his selection as the Farm Press/Cotton Foundation High Cotton Award winner for the Southwest region.
“Farming tests your will at times,” he says — and he’d have needed something tougher than an iron will not to have been tested last year, when total annual rainfall equaled just three-fourths of an inch.
“That’s all the rain we had for the entire season. About half our acreage finished the year without any measurable rainfall.”
The last good rain he had was Aug. 16, 2010. “Then, we had a shower in October, 2010. I’ve never seen anything like it. From May through July, we also had wind for four and five days in a row, blowing 45 miles per hour.”
That combination of heat, wind and drought sapped moisture from the soil as fast as an irrigation system could apply it. Evapotranspiration loss was as high as 6/10 inch per day.
Couldn’t keep water on it
“We couldn’t get enough water on,” he says. “Our dryland acreage was over before it started. We got irrigated acres up and going, but if we ever turned the system off, it was all done.”
As a result, the season was short. “Cotton cut out a full month earlier than ever before,” Holladay says. “We had received 1,000 heat units by the end of August.”
Water conservation and irrigation efficiency were sorely tested. With limited rainfall, irrigation provides supplemental water to Southern Plains cotton producers and last year they relied on irrigation for virtually every drop of water the crop got.
“This has been the worst drought in history,” Holladay says. “We had to try all season to keep the system maintained and up to date to insure efficiency. We monitored wells several times a day to make certain we weren’t damaging the pumps.”
Water levels fluctuated quite a bit during the summer. “Maintenance was a big concern, since we had to put the water where it would do the most good.”
He has 1,200 acres under center pivot irrigation and uses wobbler nozzles to get efficient distribution. “We don’t use drag hoses,” he says. “Most of our fields are contoured and circle rows don’t work as well.”
He occasionally plants peanuts in rotation and says a peanut crop also does better with straight rows.
He adjusts according to water availability.
“I alter crop inputs according to how much water we have available in the field. We had to choke back on irrigation in some areas.”
Holladay plants mostly reduced tillage cotton. “It’s an evolving program,” he says. “We have to till at some point because of pivot tracks and other issues. We never stay with no-till for more than four years. We deep break the land, then try to get it back into a cover crop as fast as possible.”
He likes to rotate with wheat or plant wheat as a winter cover, terminate it in the spring, and plant cotton in the residue. He also plants cotton into old cotton stalks.
“I want a system that provides organic matter, but doesn’t use a lot of water. Managing a cover crop has become more difficult because of our rainfall issues — the need to grow a cover crop and the need to conserve water are beginning to butt heads.”
It’s a dilemma, he says.
“I want to keep a cover crop to prevent wind from blowing the soil away. I may have to lean more on cotton stalk residue, but I prefer to plant in wheat litter. A true rotation is the best bet, but this isn’t proper wheat country. We’re trying some on our lighter water areas, then planting cotton in year-old stubble.”
He’s also tried planting a wheat cover, destroying it and planting in the residue.
“I have to look at cash flow,” he says. “Lately that’s not been a big issue with wheat prices up, but historical yields for wheat in this area may mean it’s not a good option. So, we have to look at cover crops and evaluate the potential. We have to know where our water is going and what we’re getting out of it.”
Holladay believes in a producer’s commitment to sustainability and conserving resources.
“But sustainability also means an ability to stay on the land and get a profit from it — and that’s all related to rainfall.”
Terracing is an important part of his soil conservation efforts, especially on sloping acreage. “With extreme slopes, we use terraces to prevent erosion; we have terraces on most of our land.”
The prolonged drought has limited terrace maintenance, Holladay says. “Drought affects everything we do. It has certainly slowed down terrace maintenance. We need moisture to do some of that maintenance work.”
He takes advantage of any moisture he gets to run sand fighters across his fields. When he got a light rain on part of his acreage in late September, he immediately got tractors rolling.
“We made the best of it and got the tractors running as soon as we could. Moisture doesn’t last long, and we may not have many opportunities to take care of these problems.”
Variety selection is a critical part of his production system. “In a year like 2011, variety is very important,” he says. “Typically, we do best with a variety that’s disease resistant and is as late maturing as we can get by with. We usually go through some period of drought stress every year and the less determinant varieties produce a little better quality.”
He says NexGen 4012 was the best variety he planted in 2011. “It’s a new one, and last year was the first time I had a lot of it.”
Hard to judge varieties
A drought year is a “tough time to evaluate variety performance,” he says. “The weather last year was so severe it was hard to judge performance. It’s also not a good idea, during a historical drought, to make any management decisions based on performance. I won’t make any changes based on what happened in 2011.”
Holladay says he’s committed to transgenic varieties — “I don’t plant an acre of cotton that’s not stacked gene.” And he considers global positioning system technology “one of the best pieces of technology” he’s seen.
The combination of transgenic cotton and the boll weevil eradication program has revolutionized cotton production, he says.
“I made no pesticide applications in 2011. We have a good story to tell from an environmental standpoint. The changes we’ve seen over the past 20 years are almost unbelievable.
“The boll weevil eradication program is an extraordinary accomplishment, and problems with secondary pests have been solved with transgenics.”
Other challenges pose serious threats, however. Glyphosate resistant pigweeds were recently identified near where Holladay farms.
“We have new chemistry coming that I hope will help us to stave off the bad resistance problems they’ve had in other parts of the country. We hope to learn from others what has worked and what didn’t.”
Part of the resistance prevention strategy, he says, will include going back to traditional herbicide programs, including pre-emergence materials.
“We never left it,” he says. “Now, with resistant pigweed identified in the area, we don’t rule out anything — steel, different chemistries, whatever it takes. We’re not reluctant to do what we need to do.”
Resistance management is another reason he doesn’t stay with no-till production all the time. “We want to be able to plow the ground occasionally,” he says.
Selecting the appropriate chemical and applying it at the proper rate and at the proper time also improves control. “Best rate, applied at the best time, reduces escapes,” Holladay says. “And using a pre-emergence just adds another layer of protection.”
He hopes area farmers can delay resistance until new chemistry is available to combat the tough weeds.
Politics also poses challenges for farmers, he says.
Washington is biggest challenge
“All we hear lately from Washington is to eliminate farm programs and the farm safety net. That’s the biggest challenge for commercial-size farmers.”
He’s doing his part to help. He has served on the National Cotton Council for years, including chair of the Farm Policy Task Force for the American Cotton Producers, the producer arm of NCC. He’s also a member of the American Cotton Producers and is currently in the officer rotation for Plains Cotton Growers, Inc., serving as secretary.
Holladay has also served on Cotton Incorporated committees and on the Soil and Water Conservation District (now NRCS) for Dawson County.
Being active in commodity organizations takes a lot of time, he says, but is important to keep essential programs alive. “The leadership we develop out in the country keeps these organizations going.”
He’s also in the officer rotation of the Lamesa Cotton Growers and is chairman of the board for United Cotton Gin, a farmer-owned gin at Lamesa.
His wife, Julie, is an equal partner in the farm operation. “She helps with the books and billing, which enables me to be on the farm,” he says.
She’s also busy off the farm, working with the Lubbock Affiliate of the Susan G. Komen Foundation, as well as the Louise Hopkins Underwood Center for the Arts, a local non-profit that supports and promotes the fine arts in the region.
The most important part of their lives is their daughter, Katy, a senior at Lubbock High.
Holladay worked for his father when he was a kid and represents the fourth generation to farm in the Lamesa area, but says 2011 was the most challenging year he’s experienced in 20 years of farming on his own.
He’s hoping for better results in 2012, although long-range predictions indicate a strong chance of drought persisting into next spring.
“We bank moisture very well in this area,” he says, “so fall and winter moisture is extremely important. Without that precipitation, we see limited production the following year. La Niña is bad for us. So, I guess I’m looking forward to another interesting year.”