Even though William Carlton, Jr., (Junior to his friends) wasn’t raised on a farm, something about the challenges and opportunities of making a living from the soil always appealed to him.

For years he worked on the sidelines with a farm supply dealer in the Texas Southern Plains. He farmed part-time. When the company was bought out he stayed on for a year or two and then decided full-time farmer was his next logical step.

He’s now raising cotton near Slaton with acreage scattered out as far away as Idalou and into Lynn County.

He got to know farmers through the farm supply business. “I worked around farmers all my life,” he says, “and was encouraged by what I saw. I enjoyed being associated with farmers.”

The timing was right. When he got into farming technology was already firmly in place. “I wanted to see what I could do with technology on my own.”

He’s been taking advantage of those innovations full-time for the last eight years. The last two will be memorable. In 2011, even his irrigated cotton didn’t get enough water to make a decent yield. He says the price was good enough to keep him going.

“In 2011, we got the irrigated cotton up but it didn’t do much,” he says. “Yield was not good, but the price was. We had no planting rain.” Dryland cotton never even germinated.

He’ll remember 2012 more fondly. “Last year, I made the most cotton I’ve ever pulled on irrigated acreage,” Carlton says.

That includes one 40-acre field that averaged five bales—2,575 pounds—per acre. That was on drip-irrigation and with a new variety, NexGen 1511 B2RF. Cotton under his pivots did well, too, averaging as much as 1,545 pounds per acre. Some irrigated fields with “light water,” made two-and-half bales per acre. “I was pleased with that,” Carlton says.

Variety selections

He credits improved varieties with making those yields achievable. “I always plant several varieties.” In addition to the NG1511, he planted some FiberMax cotton last year.

“I look for yield first,” in a variety, he says. “Then I look for quality. Quality is almost as important as yield. I also have some fields with Verticillium wilt and other disease problems, so I have to see what varieties fit in those situations. With consistent water, I have to deal with wilt.”

That has not been a problem the last two seasons under drought conditions.

Varieties are all Roundup Ready Flex and Bollgard selections.

“I look at field trials,” Carlton says,” and I talk to seed company salesmen.”

He typically will plant a new variety on just 40 or 50 acres the first year to see how well it does. Last year was the first time NexGen 1511 was commercially available and only in limited quantities.

“I’ll plant more in 2013,” he says. He also plans to look at other NexGen varieties, along with some FiberMax cotton. He says price may be a factor in selecting a variety.

Irrigation capacity also affects variety choices. Water in the field that made five bales last year and the adjacent field that’s under pivot irrigation holds up pretty well. “Water on farms north of here drops off late in the year. I try to put a quicker maturing variety, something like a FM2989 that seems “to hold on a little longer,” during dry weather.

Water availability on the drip irrigation field is about 4.5 gallons per acre per minute. He says that’s better than a lot of nearby wells can produce.

About one-third of Carlton’s irrigated acreage is in subsurface drip; the rest is under pivot irrigation. About half his acreage is irrigated and half is dryland. He’ll keep that ratio, or close to it, in 2013.

He’s not certain how much water he applied through drip irrigation last summer but knows that “we watered a lot. And after we turned the pivots on, we left them on.”

His drip lines are spaced 80 inches apart, between the cotton rows. “I thought about 40-inch spaces but with 4.5 gallons per minute, I felt like 80-inch spacing was better.”

A planting rain, about an inch-and-half, helped get the crop going. “Other than that, we had only about 4 inches of rain all year. We started pre-watering about a month ahead of planting.”

He managed the field that produced the five-bale yield no differently than his other irrigated cotton. “We put on about 110 units of nitrogen, 50 units of phosphorus and 20 units of potassium. That’s just a normal fertilization program.”

It got off to a good start, he says. The 1511 “jumped out of the ground.”

He had to spray late for plant bugs. “Besides that, we did nothing unusual.”

He applied a plant growth regulator three times, 2 ounces of Pentia and another 8 ounces 10 days later. He added 20 ounces of Pix later in the summer, after the cotton got a little growth. Carlton says he may have waited a bit long for the final application because conditions were so hot and dry he was afraid of setting the cotton back.

He does a little tillage, more this year than usual because of the heavy stalk residue left on his high-yielding fields. “I typically do some tillage about every third year,” he says. “I’d prefer not to touch it.”

He uses a stalk cutter ahead of shallow tillage.

Weed resistance concerns

He used only Roundup for weed control last year but will “use Treflan on every acre,” in 2013.

“I am concerned about weed resistance,” he says. Adding a preplant and pre-emerge herbicide is not expensive, “and we will see more of that. Last year I could see some resistant weeds in fields in the area. I’ll use Treflan and then something behind the planter this year. We need to get onto this quickly.”

Carlton says he got a bit excited last fall when he pulled the cotton stripper into the field and started pulling that five-bale cotton. “I had to go slow, about 0.8 miles per hour, and I had to dump often. If I tried to gun it, the stripper choked down.”

He said harvest conditions were near perfect. “After I defoliated, we had no wind and no rain. It was the prettiest cotton I’ve ever seen, white as far as I could see. I was impressed.”

Carlton owns about half his acreage and leases the rest. He bought the field near Idalou several years ago and spent considerable time bringing it into production. “It had a big prairie dog colony on it.

“Availability of land is an issue,” he says, especially for a farmer who comes into production without a family acreage base to get started. He’s built a little at a time, and now he’s working about as many acres as he wants. “I sometimes think about bringing in a few more acres but I really don’t want the aggravation of having to hire labor to manage more.”

At his current acreage he can manage with some seasonal harvest workers and help from his 20-year old daughter, a student at Texas Tech, and his 16-year old son, who he expects may want to farm some day.

Junior Carlton thinks about the challenges he’ll face in the future—declining water resources, price instability and high production costs. But he is content with his chosen vocation and seems to have no regrets about facing the challenges that are endemic to full-time farming

And over the past two years he’s set some high benchmarks—sold cotton for a dollar a pound and made five bales an acre. That’s enough to keep a farmer excited about what he’s doing and encouraged enough to keep on doing it.

rsmith@farmpress.com