David Carter has been growing cotton exclusively for 20 years, but quickly qualifies that by saying, “This is my 20th year of experience. What you learn about growing a crop doesn’t seem to last longer than a year.”
This High Plains grower remains successful during these challenging times by optimizing his resources, such as water. Additionally, he uses his membership in the local cooperative gin to take advantage of marketing opportunities.
“My independent consultant, Darrell Kitten, helps me schedule irrigations,” says Carter, who farms near Levelland, TX. “In addition to water management, Darrell helps me with fertility, insect and weed control, defoliation and variety selection.
“Our water is limited so we have to make the most with what we have. It seems as though we have to deal with less all the time, but the area producers seem to be doing a better job with less water. We have adjusted the timing of irrigations, and have just managed the resource better. I use Low Energy Precision Application (LEPA) pivot irrigation, as well as drip on 350 acres. As a rule, we expect a one-half bale yield increase with drip over pivot.”
With his inputs and sandy loam soils, Carter expects to average 3 bales per acre under center pivots and 3½ bales on his drip. On his dryland corners with the newer varieties, he has been averaging a bale per acre. “The newer, higher yielding varieties are one reason why we’re still in business,” he adds. “If we were making the same yields that we were five years ago, we couldn’t make it.”
Carter likes to use 170 units of nitrogen on his drip irrigated cotton and 150 units on pivot-irrigated. On his corners, he will apply about 40 units if he has some subsoil moisture going into the crop. Additionally, he plants from early to mid-May, using 52,000 seeds per acre, which gives him about 3 plants per foot.
Variety Selection is Critical
“Variety selection is one of my big decisions because I can’t afford any failures,” Carter says. “So many new varieties are now available, and I’m always figuring out which ones fit my operation the best. Certain varieties perform better in certain conditions and locations. It’s critical to spend as much time as it takes deciding where to plant the right variety in the right place because they all bring something different to the table. We’re constantly trying new ones, but we plant the bulk of our land to our basic varieties.”
One new variety that Carter planted last year was NexGen NG 3348 B2RF, a Bollgard II/Roundup Ready Flex cotton. His pivot of NG 3348 B2RF had a rough start: no rain and a lot of wind, followed by 100-degree-plus temperatures.
“We planted NG 3348 B2RF in the middle of May and in spite of the bad weather, it had good emergence,” Carter says. “NG 3348 B2RF performed as well as our standard varieties, and it yielded about 1,400 pounds per acre.”
Carter strips his cotton, although in 2006 he hired a custom picker for some of his crop. In 2007, he and a friend leased a picker. “The markets supposedly demand picked cotton although it has yet to prove an advantage to me; I can operate strippers more economically,” he says. “I stripped all my cotton in 2008, but we’re still considering picked cotton. Last fall was not ideal for a picker on the High Plains. We didn’t start harvesting until after the first freeze, and a picker needs to be in the field much earlier. I like to start stripping by mid-October and finish up by Thanksgiving.”
Carter uses his membership in a cooperative gin to take advantage of marketing opportunities. “That especially helps during a year like 2008 when the yields aren’t really great,” he says. “However, I had the crop contracted in the right pool and had a good gin rebate because raw cottonseed prices rose.
“The gin helps us with our marketing; they offer several options to growers who decide what best fits their operation. For example, last year my cotton was in Queensland Cotton, which offered 10 cents over loan back when prices were rising. You need to take advantage of opportunities when they’re offered. Looking into 2009, there are starting to be a few opportunities, although certainly none that attractive yet.”
Carter is a member of the United Cotton Growers in Levelland. This cooperative gin is one of the largest in the U.S., ginning about 150,000 bales a year as a five-year average. The five-stand Lummus gin is run by Paul Wilson.
“Gins are hurting right now but we’re fortunate because ours is successful,” Carter says. “Our biggest problem is handling growth, which has come through new varieties, drip irrigation and better management. Our progressive producers are making a lot more than what we used to.”
The increased gin rebate to growers has helped Carter’s bottom line. “One time last summer cottonseed prices rose to more than $400 per ton at the dairy level,” he says. “They told us that dairies would quit feeding when prices rose above $175, but they kept using it. It’s back around $220 per ton, which is twice the amount that we’re accustomed to. It’s added a substantial value to the grower. Many dairies have relocated from California to West Texas and are located 50 to 60 miles north of me. They have helped demand for cottonseed. The good thing about cottonseed is that it’s all for domestic consumption so we don’t have to rely on export markets like we do with our lint.”
Carter says producing cotton profitably goes back to using a crop consultant, managing water and fertility, and taking advantage of pricing opportunities. “It all goes hand in hand,” he says. “We closely watch all of our expenses and make as much yield as possible. The newer varieties have really helped increase our yields.”