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Technology helps stretch input dollar

John Lindamood found the road to uniformity lay along the route he laid out using precision agriculture.

As farmers across the Belt showed at the 55th annual Production Conference at the recent Cotton Beltwide Conferences, maximizing inputs and stretching dollars is a winner no matter the locale.

Lindamood started out slowly with precision agriculture, using a relatively low-tech approach in 1995 with GPS soil sampling, overlaying maps and creating zones. The practice led to variable-rate fertilizer applications and savings.

The next step: remote imaging that allowed him to upload the information gathered in the field to a Web-based system. From that, he created seven zones of growth where he could look at his crops and write specific production prescriptions. The benefit: variable-rate plant growth regulator and defoliant applications. “We realized some cost savings, but more importantly, we were able to have the confidence to apply heavier rates where we needed them and to cut our rates where we didn’t need them,” Lindamood said.

The bottom line: “We ended up with a much more uniform crop,” Lindamood said, which led to a “once-over defoliation.”

Looking for another way to manage the data collected from the field in 2005, Lindamood found a connection between late-season map images and residual nitrogen. The practice led to cutting nitrogen rates from 90 units per acre to 75 units per acre. “We reduced the need for plant-growth regulators because we had a uniform crop,” he said.

In 2006, he added another layer of soil data, which led to elimination of variable-rate defoliation and further enhanced uniformity.

“Precision agriculture is not rocket science — I’m not a rocket scientist,” Lindamood said. “There are plenty of software programs, as well as consultants and dealers that can help you get started. Precision agriculture gives you real potential to manage your crop and cut costs.”

Key Points

• Growers from across the Cotton Belt share their experiences.

• Technology plays a role in stretching dollars.

• North Carolina growers went back to conventional varieties.

Back to the future

For David Grant, Tim Phelps and David Dunlow, who farm along the Virginia-North Carolina line between the Piedmont and Coastal Plain, going back to conventional cotton varieties provided a way to not only save money, but also to bring profit from marginal land.

After finding nontransgenic seed in Texas, Grant and his colleagues planted 600 acres of conventional cotton on what he calls “600-pound cotton land.” Few conventional varieties are available these days because of the overwhelming response to transgenic cotton, so the availability may be limited.

The $15.60-per-bag cost for conventional cotton versus $500 per bag for transgenic cotton, however, provided leeway to keep costs low and still produce a crop.

“We started out with $200 in the crop on June 1 and decided not to go over $300,” Grant said.

The biggest change was using yellow herbicides early and waiting on rain. They also sprayed three times for worms and for an early infestation of stinkbugs.

“We ended up with a clean crop and excellent yields,” Grant said, adding that he’s amazed at the interest in growing conventional cotton varieties.

They plan to do it again.

Rotational benefits

Over five years, Stacy Smith of Wilson, Texas, saw yields go down to 490 pounds per acre while input costs rose. The culprit: reniform nematodes.

The solution: a grain sorghum rotation to lower the “too high to count” nematode numbers. Last year, he had a 145% yield increase at harvest.

“We put the fertilizer into the grain bed and got away from conventional farming methods,” Smith said, “eliminating the volunteer cotton and the [various] hosts for nematodes.”

The results, one year later: 1,200 pounds of cotton per acre and a $383-per-acre increase in gross revenue.

He’s still waiting for nematode-resistant varieties, but said that rotation helps him lose the feeling of “walking out the door one day and getting hit by a sledgehammer.”

Embracing technology

Fourth-generation cotton farmer Steve Sossaman of Arizona believes embracing technology leads to learning opportunities. Over the years, he’s taken technology to heart. For example, laser leveling helped him cut water use 30%.

Crop rotation helped him build up organic matter and reduce disease pressure. A move to drip irrigation forced him to adapt technology and “stay in the track” of the previous crop, keeping him from “jumping out of the practice too quickly.” Adapting the principles of drip irrigation to furrow irrigation allowed Sossaman to save time, labor and fuel and eventually led to a uniform row spacing of 34 inches for each crop he grows. “The 34-inch pattern works great for cotton and grains,” he said.

A move to adopt nontransgenic varieties for some of his cotton acres has also helped cut costs “and get away from resistance issues.

“I encourage people to embrace technology” as it develops, Sossaman said. “You’re going to learn a lot in the process.”

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BELTWIDE PANEL: Growers from east to west capitalize on various practices to “maximize inputs and stretch dollars.” (From left) David Grant of North Carolina, John Lindamood of Tennessee, Stacy Smith of Texas and Steve Sossaman of Arizona shared their experiences at the Cotton Beltwide Conferences recently.

This article published in the March, 2010 edition of MID-SOUTH FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2010.