New tech can up profits

Clint Abernathy lost almost his entire cotton crop during the 2011 drought, and wasn’t the only Altus, Okla., grower who was severely impacted. Many irrigated acreages lost serious numbers as Lake Altus-Lugert, the area’s primary source of irrigation water, couldn’t keep ahead of the heat and precipitation deficit.

But Abernathy doesn’t have time to worry about the weather forecast. He has a progressive stance on agriculture and, with sons Jarod and Justin, is ready to adopt new technologies.

“I enjoy being outside, growing crops and being with family,” he says. “It’s a family farm, and it’s been a really great thing farming with my father and having my sons help me.”

The Abernathys run about 70 Angus cattle on a limited grassland acreage, but most of the land is put it into wheat and cotton rotations. All wheat and about half the cotton acres are dryland, while the remaining cotton is irrigated with furrow and drip systems. Abernathy uses no-till practices in as many acres as possible, but has found it isn’t feasible with his furrow acres, where he still uses conventional tillage.

Saving money

Abernathy always used furrow irrigation in his cotton, but he explored drip irrigation about eight years ago, which dramatically increased yields. The impacts went well beyond yield and saved his operation money. It also allowed him to explore no-till. The ultimate goal is to replace his furrows with drip tapes and completely adopt no-till.

“Row irrigation is very labor-intensive, and finding that labor is getting more difficult all the time,” he says. “Drip is a more efficient way to irrigate, and we really like it because we’ve been able to no-till, which saves us a lot of money.”

No-till practices have allowed him to take advantage of Roundup Ready cotton varieties, which have reduced in-season production to primarily spraying for weeds. As Abernathy describes it, he does most of his farming with a sprayer in-season. The sprayers may one day save more money through variable pesticide rates, an area he is slowly exploring with GPS.

Most pieces of equipment on his farm are newer models with GPS capability, but it is one area he has yet to fully embrace. He has received help from Oklahoma State University scientists at the Southwest Research and Extension Center in Altus, including variable-rate chemical applications, but the adoption of the technology has been relatively slow due to a lack of data.

Although 2010 was a productive season, it was a different story for 2009 and 2011, and they are waiting a few more years before they fully adopt the technology.

“We’ve seen some savings, but we haven’t done enough of it to tell. We only have limited data,” Abernathy says.

GPS does play a major role in one aspect of his operation. The drip tapes were installed with satellite guidance, and that technology proves useful each season as it guides planting so each row is positioned to the drip tape for optimum irrigation.

Abernathy harvests the cotton with his own equipment, though his wheat acres are custom-cut to let him focus on cotton. He has two cotton harvesters, including one bought last season, and is exploring the new module-building harvesters for the 2012 season. They haven’t purchased one yet, but they have tested them, and are excited about the technology.

Abernathy knows the inherent risks in production agriculture, and it’s something he doesn’t take lightly. His adoption of new technologies is one way to face those risks and remain productive through cost-saving measures that improve his operation, even when a drought decimates his crop.

“We are always trying to cut labor and cut expenses, and these technologies have really helped in that,” he says. “It’s challenging, and I enjoy that. There are never two years alike, so it never gets boring.”

Brazil writes from Carnegie, Okla.

This article published in the April, 2012 edition of THE FARMER-STOCKMAN.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2012.