Sleepless nights are another of life’s inevitables along with taxes and countless others. University of California Cooperative Extension Tulare County Farm Advisor Steve Wright laughs about a sleepless night this year’s Far West High Cotton award winner, Gil Replogle of Visalia, Calif., experienced a few years back.
Replogle attended a precision ag field day at former High Cotton award winner Ted Sheely’s Kings County, Calif. farm where he saw for the first time a GPS auto steer tractor guidance system.
“Gil called me the next morning and said he could not sleep thinking about what he saw and the advantages of a GPS guidance system to save money; eliminate guess rows and allow him to work fields at night,” laughed Wright, who nominated Replogle for this year’s High Cotton award.
“What I saw blew my mind. I could not sleep thinking about it,” said Replogle. Significant cost savings were only part of it. There is also the “peace of mind” factor. Regardless of who was behind the wheel, a satellite guidance system would ensure tractor work from disking, to furrowing out, to planting to cultivating would be right-on accurate.
Replogle owns three AutoFarm systems. He was one of the first in the area to purchase the new technology that is revolutionizing farming. His antenna is now used by neighbors who have boarded the GPS spaceship. Next season will be Replogle’s fourth using AutoFarm.
“The cost of the systems we bought equaled the cost of buying another tractor, but the efficiency we gained with them is actually better than it would be with an additional tractor.” Replogle believes the auto guidance systems save easily 15 percent on tractor operation costs.
Replogle, 38, is a third-generation Tulare County cotton producer who has seen King Cotton replaced by King Cows in his home county. Tulare County, population about 450,000 people, is the No. 1 dairy county in the nation with twice as many cows, replacement heifers and calves as humans. More than a fourth of the county’s $4.3 billion in agricultural income is from milk production. This has obvious farming implications. Demand for feed, particularly forages, continues to grow with each new dairy built.
Replogle leases the 2,000 acres he farms, including the 600 acres of cotton he raises annually, from one of the largest dairymen in the county, Arlie de Jong.
While the dairy industry’s insatiable demand for feed has cost cotton acreage, it is also helping maintain cotton’s economic viability. Cotton is an excellent rotation crop with corn and grain silage and alfalfa, primarily as a crop where weeds emanating in corn and other feed crops can be controlled.
“There is tremendous weed pressure in corn and small grain silage,” said Wright. “Stinging nettle in small grains is particularly bad. Ryegrass and lately bluegrass and chickweed are major weed problems in forage crops. Two years ago we rarely saw bluegrass. Today it is a growing problem. Cotton is an excellent rotation crop where you can clean up those weeds with cultivation and cotton-registered herbicides,” said Wright. This is such a critical issue for farmers who grow forages, but not cotton, will rent their ground to cotton producers just to clean up the weeds.
“The growth of the dairy industry and the need for more forages for feed has had a negative impact on cotton acreage,” acknowledged Wright. “However, there are positives as well.”
One, the demand for forages, has created an economically healthy farming environment. Tulare County dairies are large. The dairy where Replogle leases ground milks 4,000 cows a day. This does not include replacement heifers and calves. This is typical of the new dairies in the county. These mega dairies have an insatiable demand for feed they cannot meet onsite and must buy from local farmers.
“This helps keep farmers in the cotton business when cotton prices are low,” said Wright.
A second positive impact is the improved cotton ground fertility from dairy manure. Wright is convinced this has resulted in higher average cotton yields in the county.
Although Replogle worked with his dad Ray while attending high school and College of the Sequoias in Visalia, he did not plan to be a farmer when he went to Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo to get a BS in industrial technology.
Replogle went to a job fair on the eve of his graduation in 1990, but instead of finding a job in IT, it convinced him he wanted to go back home to farm.
“Dad had been planning to retire from farming, but committed himself to staying in the business to get me going on my own,” Gil said. Fortunately for Gil, his father had the opportunity to pick up extra ground when Gil graduated college and this made economic room for his son to join in the family farming operation.
“I feel very blessed to have had the opportunity to work with my dad and learn from him,” said Replogle. “Dad taught me how to run the business like he did, in a way that pleases God, and I want to continue that.”
Although cotton is used as a weed control/rotation crop for forages, Replogle tries to put cotton on the best ground for highest yields. His primary cotton variety is Phytogen 72, a non-transgenic cotton yet one of the most widely planted varieties in the San Joaquin Valley because of its wide adaptability and high yields. Even the corn Gil grows for the dairy is conventional.
“I see using herbicide resistant varieties in the future, especially in corn varieties. But for right now for cotton, I am relying on conventional-tillage and herbicides to control weeds.”
Replogle likes the yield potential of Phytogen’s new Roundup Flex variety, 725 RF as well as the ability to glyphosate later in the growing season than with the older Roundup Ready varieties. He may try it next season.
For now Fusilade over-the-top of cotton does a good job controlling grasses in cotton. Banvel in corn and Shark in cotton works well on the other major weed problem, morningglory. Replogle starts his chemical weed control effort with pre-plant dinitroanaline.
Conventional-tillage is still a key weed control tool in his cotton farming. For example, he follows corn silage harvest in October with at least two stubble disk diskings and in-season cultivation on his 30-inch bed cotton along with herbicides to control weeds.
For more than decade, Wright has worked with Replogle on a variety of UCCE trials. One was on narrow-row that resulted in Replogle switching to 30-inch cotton. Narrow-row also helps in weed control by shading out furrows sooner than 38-inch rows.
Another trial looked at minimum-tillage. It did not work for Replogle.
He is not alone. There has been a lot of effort extended to develop no-till systems in the arid West, but grower adoption has been minimal.
“It may sound backward with all the talk of no-till today, but what I gained from the research we did with no-till is to show how important tillage is,” said Replogle. “I know a lot of people will disagree with me.”
Replogle wants to reduce tractor work as much as the next farmer, but not at the price of reducing yields. “If I could find a one-pass system that worked well, I’d be all for it. But I have not found it yet. To me no-till or minimum-till is like starting off the year with a problem. We try all season long to prevent problems; why start with one?”
Specifically, Replogle said two issues soured him on no-till; one was bed preparation and the other irrigation.
“Sixty percent of the battle in growing cotton is getting a stand. It is difficult to get a stand chasing moisture through crop residue. Bed preparation is everything in getting a cotton stand.” Crop residue is a major issue in adopting conservation-tillage or no-till in the West where there is little rain or other weathering factors to reduce the residue.
Replogle said he could not irrigate efficiently with residue in the furrows and without cultivation. “We want to get water on and off quickly, and we could not do that with no-till,” he said.
The young Tulare County farmer relies on Pix to control growth. However, and just as significant, is his use of irrigation management to control plant growth and set cotton. “We literally watch plants on a daily basis in deciding when to irrigate. You can tell by the way cotton looks in the afternoon when it needs water,” he said.
Replogle explains that with the heavy use of manure, failure to stress cotton to set fruit can result in a “rank mess” from ill-timed watering. Irrigation is a “huge issue” for him because of the N levels associated with the constant application of dairy waste on farmland, especially on dark, high-water holding soils like Replogle farms.
Replogle consistently yields more than three bales of cotton per acre. He almost made a four-bale average in 2004, one of the best cotton producing years ever in the San Joaquin. Replogle attributes much of that to what he has gleaned from Wright’s trials. When Wright started working with the Replogles, yields averaged about 2.5 bales.
Besides the potassium and irrigation trials, Replogle learned the value of soil and tissue sampling for nitrogen applications. “I shoot for 200 units of N each year and will go up to 260 if it looks like it will pay off. I learned through Steve’s trials that adequate N is very important to achieving high yields” said Replogle. He uses UN 32 as a supplemental N source to manure.
For the past two years Replogle has used In-Time aerial imagery to determine variable rate Pix applications. This has come on the recommendation of Chase, who has been working with Replogle since 2002.
The maps recommended three rates of Pix across Replogle fields, 12 and 24 ounces in two areas and no Pix in another. Replogle applied the various rates using AutoFarm guidance and a Raven computer system on a high clearance sprayer to meter the plant growth regulator.