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Photo by Lacey Newlin.

Fifteen years ago, on the West Texas Plains, Stacy Smith admits he never considered growing anything other than cotton.

“The only time we planted anything else was if we got hail,” Smith recalled.

But in these parts, where farmers rely largely on the mercy of Mother Nature, Smith realized that, economically, he had to do something different.

Smith, of New Home, Texas, and Jeremy Brown, who farms near Lubbock, spoke as part of a farmer panel during High Plains Journal’s virtual Cotton U program on Dec. 3. The two talked about how they adjusted their farming operations to address the climate, pests and profitability.

Crop rotations and fertility

Smith began using crop rotations and fertilizer placement to help reduce a reniform nematode problem.

“We could not grow cotton back-to-back years,” Smith said.

Cotton is still the region’s economic driver, and Smith knew he had to reduce nematode populations to continue to grow it. Yet, while planting grain sorghum and wheat as a rotation after cotton, he noticed something else.

“I saw the benefits that it could do to your cotton yields and the soil health,” he said of rotations, noting he is building up organic matter and thus producing better cotton. “At first I felt pressured into it, but as I went through the process, I could see the benefits beyond the suppression of the nematode.”

Cover crops

Brown, who grows 4,000 acres of traditional and organic cotton, was tired of seeing the sand blow. His operation is 60% dryland. He started planting a wheat cover crop into his sandy loam soils as a solution. Soon, he introduced legumes and other cover crops into the mix.

“We started focusing on ‘How can I grow the best crop to benefit the soil and also benefit my following cash crop,’” Brown said. “Cotton is the crop that makes us the most money, and I grow these other things to benefit the soil and help grow a better cotton crop.”

As a result, he started to decrease his synthetic inputs, helping to cut yearly expenses and increase profitability.

“The price I’m selling my product for hasn't changed in forever,” Brown said. “My granddad was selling cotton for the same price in the ‘70s early 1980s as I am today, but our inputs have just drastically increased.”

He implemented the 4R rule of nutrient management—right source, right rate, right time and right place. He takes soil samples and treats each farm unique.

“I’m just trying to get as precise as I can, and I’m not where I want to be,” he said, adding, “I try not to just focus on the yield but the dollars per acre. What can this land do and return to me and make a profit?

“We have degraded our soils so much,” he said. “I’m just trying to be a better steward. I’m not where I want to be. But I feel like I'm on a road that, in the near future, we can grow our own nitrogen. There is so much nitrogen in the atmosphere. If we can capture that with legumes and decrease our synthetic use, that really is my goal.”

Yet, he added, the last two years he has been planting into dry conditions.

“When it doesn't rain and it is hot, it doesn't matter what we do,” Brown said.

Advice from West Texas

“If you are going to spend for seed or irrigation, but if you don’t have proper fertility out there, you just wasted money upfront,” Smith said. “That doesn't mean you throw the kitchen sink at it, that just means to have something reasonable in place.”

He said a lot of areas in the Cotton Belt don’t focus on soil health because of the increased rainfall. But even in his area, changes are made only if they make economic sense.

“It is not that people make a choice to plant cotton every year,” he said. “It is what pays the bills and it still pays the bills. And that is what is making it difficult on these dryland acres to make changes that might need to be made but you just can't with the economic aspect of it.”

Don’t outperform your environment, Brown added.

“I think as farmers we chase yield, but maybe our environment isn’t suitable for that production,” he said.

Amy Bickel can be reached at journal@hpj.com.

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