They farm vastly different acreages in a wide range of climates and crop mixes — but they all share a love of growing cotton and a determination to adapt their practices to make the crop a keystone of their success.
They are the winners of the 2017 High Cotton Awards, which are being presented for the 23rd year to producers from the four primary regions of the cotton belt who grow a quality fiber economically and in an environmentally-responsible manner.
The awards are sponsored by Farm Press, a member of the Penton Ag Group, through a grant to The Cotton Foundation. They will be presented during the annual High Cotton awards breakfast that will be held March 3 in conjunction with the Mid-South Farm and Gin Show at Memphis.
This year’s winners are:
• Ronnie and Andrew Burleson, Richfield, N.C., for the Southeast states.
• Byron Seward, Louise, Miss., for the Delta states.
• Brent Hendon, Welch, Texas, for the Southwest states.
• Mark McKean, Riverdale, Calif., for the Western states.
This year’s awards are co-sponsored by Americot, AMVAC, Bayer FiberMax/Stoneville, PhytoGen, Dyna-Gro, Helena, John Deere, Netafim, and Simplot Grower Solutions.
“It’s easy to be discouraged when prices are lower than they were just a couple of years ago, but these growers have stuck with cotton and are doing their best to keep it as a vital part of their operations,” says Greg Frey, vice president for the Penton Ag Group.
“Cotton prices actually have improved somewhat in recent weeks, and we hope that’s a harbinger of better days to come. Meanwhile, these growers continue to grow cotton while being, like most farmers, good stewards of the environment.”
BROUGHT COTTON BACK
Southeast winner Ronnie Burleson and his family were the first farmers to bring cotton back to Stanly County, N.C., in 1991 after the boll weevil — and low prices — had driven growers out of the crop.
The comeback was possible because growers banded together with the federal government to eradicate the pest. “The Boll Weevil Eradication program started here in North Carolina in 1987, and by 1991 the boll weevil was pretty much gone,” Ronnie says.
With the challenges of the boll weevil out of the way, and with depressed grain prices at the time, he and his family were looking to crops that work to fill the gap. “Cotton happened to be at better prices, so we decided to jump in and give it a whirl.”
The Burlesons have grown cotton every year since then, and they plan to stay with the crop. Today, Ronnie Burleson farms with his son, Andrew, brother Dennis, and Dennis’ son, Aaron. The Burlesons are known for their commitment to soil conservation, adapting the latest technology and going the extra mile to produce a high yielding, high quality cotton crop.
EARLY INTO COMPUTERS
Byron Seward’s family has been growing cotton in the Mississippi Delta since the 1930s. Byron and his son, Darrington, the fourth generation to be involved, have added corn and soybeans to their crop mix, but they continue to make cotton a mainstay of their operation.
The elder Seward took a slight detour after graduating from Washington & Lee University in 1970, spending two years in the Army before returning to the farm. During his military tour, he became a systems analyst, which brought him into contact with the then-new world of computers.
Thus, when precision agriculture began to come on the scene it wasn’t an entirely new field for Seward. He became one of the first farmers in the Delta to make variable rate applications of fertilizer, using a flagging system to show the applicators where to increase or decrease the rates.
The practice helped him to better match the applications with the needs of plants, while preventing the excess from running off into area streams.
These days, son Darrington writes the prescriptions for variable rate applications, using state-of-the-art spreaders and spray rigs for nutrient applications. The father-son team even makes variable rate applications of Cotoran, matching herbicide rate to the different soil types in their fields, and at the same time reducing the overall application rate.
It’s part of their strategy for battling Palmer amaranth, an increasing problem in the Mid-South. “We are very aggressive in our rotation of chemistries to ward off resistance,” says Darrington. “We applied Cotoran on 100 percent of our cotton, and we use residuals everywhere we can.”
REMOTE EQUIPMENT MONITORING
The Sewards use their current technology to remotely monitor all of the equipment they operate on the nearly 30,000 acres they farm around Louise, located in the south Delta of Mississippi.
“We like the remote display access that allows us to see, in real time, where all our equipment is located, how it’s operating, what the yield is, and an extensive array of data that we can use to analyze every factor that influences crop performance and yield,” says Byron. “With this technology, there are no secrets — we can see where all of our equipment is and how it’s operating.”
In the early 2000s, Byron and Darrington began growing corn and rotating it with their cotton. They learned that the corn didn’t produce as well in the 38-inch rows they were using for cotton, so they narrowed the spacings to 30 inches.
That forced some further adaptation. The solution, they decided, was a 2x1 skip row system, which means they have to move the picker units farther out on their five John Deere round-module pickers. But the system has worked for them.
A COMMITMENT TO COTTON
Someone in Brent Hendon’s family has been growing cotton in the area around Welch, Texas, since the late 1920s. “My great-grandfather bought land here in 1916,” Brent says, “but he had to save money until he could afford to start a farm, sometime in the late ‘20s.”
Hendon irrigates 75 percent of his 4,000 acres of cotton, watering with center pivots with low elevation spray application (LESA). He uses a FieldNet control system to monitor and manage the pivots from his smart phone. He also employs soil conservation practices, rotation and resistant weed management.
He talks about his commitment to cotton. “It’s always been cotton,” he says. “We have some peanuts (120 acres of conventional and 30 acres of organic), wheat, and triticale — but we have bought and paid for everything with cotton. We stay with it in good times and bad.”
That’s the way he feels about farming, too. “I never considered doing anything else. I didn’t want to go to college.” He started farming on his own as soon as he got out of high school and has been at it ever since.
TELLS IT LIKE IT IS
“If you are a cotton farmer and you don’t enjoy it, you probably shouldn’t be growing it,” he says. “It’s not an easy task because of the many steps during the growing cycle.”
McKean has farmed for 29 years and experienced many economic cycles — prosperous years, and lean years. With cotton prices in the doldrums the last several years, he was glad to see lint prices gain traction last fall.
While he would like to achieve higher yields, the Riverdale area’s high alkaline soils limit production, tied in part to salt buildup from five consecutive years of drought.
Because of the salt, most of the irrigation water is “lousy quality” groundwater. Well water is pulled from a depth of 220 feet to 240 feet. Higher quality surface water is in limited supply due to ongoing drought, but when it’s available, it’s used. “Fresh surface water during the middle of the growing season is a real plus.”
Son Connor adds: “When we get fresh water, you can see the positive difference in plants within 10 to 20 days after applying the surface water. The plants lift up and just look happier and healthier.”
The McKean family places great emphasis on environmental stewardship, using inputs sparingly. This has been achieved in part by using variable rate input applications of nitrogen and Pix for nearly a decade. Reduced N use has helped protect the groundwater.
VARIABLE RATE APPLICATIONS
“We once had crop uniformity issues at defoliation time, and we’ve counteracted much of that with variable rate Pix applications,” Mark says. “It has really helped at picking time. The benefits include better defoliation and a more uniform crop at picking time.”
The McKean family’s pro-environment philosophy also includes the sparing use of crop protection materials. “Spraying a chemical is the last thing I want to do,” Mark says. “Anytime you start applying chemicals, you are in a cycle of doing it again and again. The longer you can put it off, the better.” He’s sprayed cotton just once or twice per season in recent years.
McKean is an advocate for natural predators, monitored closely in the field. Last year, a solid influx of lacewings successfully managed an aphid outbreak.