Shawn Holladay would just as soon not experience another cotton growing season like the summer of 2011 — record heat, record drought, high winds and enough frustration to last a lifetime.

But even with the worst growing conditions he’s ever faced, Holladay, who farms near Lamesa, Texas, says his commitment to stay with his production plan and to keep his land worked and ready to make a crop at all times never wavered.

“It’s a business decision,” he says. “It’s best for the long-term health of the farm to keep every acre ready to plant. It’s hard to do in a year like 2011; it’s difficult to spend money just to maintain the land — but it’s good for the business.”

Maximizing profit potential requires keeping the soil in shape, even in bad years, he says. Maintenance includes such prescribed conservation practices as reduced tillage, maintaining terraces, preserving organic matter and using water as efficiently as possible.

Holladay’s adherence to proven conservation and production systems, even under extreme conditions, was among the factors that resulted in his selection as the Farm Press/Cotton Foundation High Cotton Award winner for the Southwest region.

“Farming tests your will at times,” he says — and he’d have needed something tougher than an iron will not to have been tested last year, when total annual rainfall equaled just three-fourths of an inch.

“That’s all the rain we had for the entire season. About half our acreage finished the year without any measurable rainfall.”

The last good rain he had was Aug. 16, 2010. “Then, we had a shower in October, 2010. I’ve never seen anything like it. From May through July, we also had wind for four and five days in a row, blowing 45 miles per hour.”

That combination of heat, wind and drought sapped moisture from the soil as fast as an irrigation system could apply it. Evapotranspiration loss was as high as 6/10 inch per day.

“We couldn’t get enough water on,” he says. “Our dryland acreage was over before it started. We got irrigated acres up and going, but if we ever turned the system off, it was all done.”

As a result, the season was short. “Cotton cut out a full month earlier than ever before,” Holladay says. “We had received 1,000 heat units by the end of August.”

Water conservation and irrigation efficiency were sorely tested. With limited rainfall, irrigation provides supplemental water to Southern Plains cotton producers and last year they relied on irrigation for virtually every drop of water the crop got.

“This has been the worst drought in history,” Holladay says. “We had to try all season to keep the system maintained and up to date to insure efficiency. We monitored wells several times a day to make certain we weren’t damaging the pumps.”

Water levels fluctuated quite a bit during the summer. “Maintenance was a big concern, since we had to put the water where it would do the most good.”

He has 1,200 acres under center pivot irrigation and uses wobbler nozzles to get efficient distribution. “We don’t use drag hoses,” he says. “Most of our fields are contoured and circle rows don’t work as well.”

He occasionally plants peanuts in rotation and says a peanut crop also does better with straight rows.

He adjusts according to water availability.

“I alter crop inputs according to how much water we have available in the field. We had to choke back on irrigation in some areas.”

Holladay plants mostly reduced tillage cotton. “It’s an evolving program,” he says. “We have to till at some point because of pivot tracks and other issues. We never stay with no-till for more than four years. We deep break the land, then try to get it back into a cover crop as fast as possible.”

He likes to rotate with wheat or plant wheat as a winter cover, terminate it in the spring, and plant cotton in the residue. He also plants cotton into old cotton stalks.

“I want a system that  provides organic matter, but doesn’t use a lot of water. Managing a cover crop has become more difficult because of our rainfall issues — the need to grow a cover crop and the need to conserve water are beginning to butt heads.”

It’s a dilemma, he says.

“I want to keep a cover crop to prevent wind from blowing the soil away. I may have to lean more on cotton stalk residue, but I prefer to plant in wheat litter. A true rotation is the best bet, but this isn’t proper wheat country. We’re trying some on our lighter water areas, then planting cotton in year-old stubble.”

He’s also tried planting a wheat cover, destroying it and planting in the residue.

“I have to look at cash flow,” he says. “Lately that’s not been a big issue with wheat prices up, but historical yields for wheat in this area may mean it’s not a good option. So, we have to look at cover crops and evaluate the potential. We have to know where our water is going and what we’re getting out of it.”

Holladay believes in a producer’s commitment to sustainability and conserving resources.

“But sustainability also means an ability to stay on the land and get a profit from it — and that’s all related to rainfall.”

Terracing is an important part of his soil conservation efforts, especially on sloping acreage. “With extreme slopes, we use terraces to prevent erosion; we have terraces on most of our land.”

The prolonged drought has limited terrace maintenance, Holladay says. “Drought affects everything we do. It has certainly slowed down terrace maintenance. We need moisture to do some of that maintenance work.”

He takes advantage of any moisture he gets to run sand fighters across his fields. When he got a light rain on part of his acreage in late September, he immediately got tractors rolling.

“We made the best of it and got the tractors running as soon as we could. Moisture doesn’t last long, and we may not have many opportunities to take care of these problems.”