Sleepless nights are another of life's inevitables along with taxes and countless others.
University of California Cooperative Extension Tulare County farm advisor Steve Wright laughs about a sleepless night this year's Far West High Cotton award winner, Gil Replogle of Visalia, Calif., experienced a few years back.
Replogle attended a precision ag field day at former High Cotton award winner Ted Sheely's Kings County, Calif., farm where he saw for the first time a GPS auto-steer tractor guidance system.
“Gil called me the next morning and said he could not sleep thinking about what he saw and the advantages of a GPS guidance system to save money, eliminate guess rows and allow him to work fields at night,” laughed Wright, who nominated Replogle for this year's High Cotton award.
“What I saw blew my mind. I could not sleep thinking about it,” said Replogle. Significant cost savings were only part of it. There is also the “peace of mind” factor. Regardless of who was behind the wheel, a satellite guidance system would ensure tractor work from disking to furrowing out to planting to cultivating would be right-on accurate.
Replogle owns three AutoFarm systems. He was one of the first in the area to purchase the new technology that is revolutionizing farming. His antenna is now used by neighbors who have boarded the GPS spaceship. Next season will be Replogle's fourth using AutoFarm.
“The cost of the systems we bought equaled the cost of buying another tractor, but the efficiency we gained with them is actually better than it would be with an additional tractor.” Replogle believes the auto guidance systems save easily 15 percent on tractor operation costs.
Replogle, 38, is a third-generation Tulare County cotton producer who has seen King Cotton replaced by King Cows in his home county. Tulare County, population about 450,000 people, is the No. 1 dairy county in the nation with twice as many cows, replacement heifers and calves as humans. More than a fourth of the county's $4.3 billion in agricultural income is from milk production. This has obvious farming implications. Demand for feed, particularly forages, continues to grow with each new dairy built.
Replogle leases the 2,000 acres he farms, including the 600 acres of cotton he grows annually, from one of the largest dairymen in the county, Arlie de Jong.
While the dairy industry's insatiable demand for feed has cost cotton acreage, it is also helping maintain cotton's economic viability. Cotton is an excellent rotation crop with corn and grain silage and alfalfa, primarily as a crop where weeds emanating in corn and other feed crops can be controlled.
“There is tremendous weed pressure in corn and small grain silage,” said Wright. “Stinging nettle in small grains is particularly bad. Ryegrass and lately bluegrass and chickweed are major weed problems in forage crops. Two years ago we rarely saw bluegrass. Today it is a growing problem.
“Cotton is an excellent rotation crop where you can clean up those weeds with cultivation and cotton-registered herbicides,” said Wright. This is such a critical issue that farmers who grow forages, but not cotton, will rent their ground to cotton producers just to clean up the weeds.
“The growth of the dairy industry and the need for more forages for feed has had a negative impact on cotton acreage,” acknowledged Wright. “However, there are positives as well.”
One, the demand for forages, has created an economically healthy farming environment. Tulare County dairies are large. The dairy where Replogle leases ground milks 4,000 cows a day. This does not include replacement heifers and calves. This is typical of the new dairies in the county. These mega dairies have an insatiable demand for feed they cannot meet onsite and must buy from local farmers. “This helps keep farmers in the cotton business when cotton prices are low,” said Wright.
A second positive impact is the improved cotton ground fertility from dairy manure. Wright is convinced this has resulted in higher average cotton yields in the county.
Although Replogle worked with his dad, Ray, while attending high school and College of the Sequoias in Visalia, he did not plan to be a farmer when he went to Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, to get a degree in industrial technology.
Replogle went to a job fair on the eve of his graduation in 1990, but instead of finding a job in IT, he left convinced he wanted to go back home to farm.
Recruiters talked about life in the fast lane. “They talked about fast cars and fast living. That really turned me off. I had spent a lot of time on the farm with my dad and all of a sudden at that point I decided to give full-time farming a try,” said Replogle.
“Dad had been planning to retire from farming, but committed himself to staying in the business to get me going on my own,” Gil said. Fortunately for Gil, his father had the opportunity to pick up extra ground when Gil graduated college and this made economic room for his son to join in the family farming operation.
“I feel very blessed to have had the opportunity to work with my dad and learn from him,” said Replogle. “Dad taught me how to run the business like he did, in a way that pleases God, and I want to continue that.”
Although cotton is used as a weed control/rotation crop for forages, Replogle tries to put cotton on the best ground for highest yields. His primary cotton variety is Phytogen 72, a non-transgenic cotton, yet one of the most widely planted varieties in the San Joaquin Valley because of its wide adaptability and high yields. Even the corn Gil grows for the dairy is conventional.
“I see using herbicide-resistant varieties in the future, especially in corn varieties. But for right now for cotton, I am relying on conventional tillage and herbicides to control weeds.”
Replogle likes the yield potential of Phytogen's new Roundup Flex variety, 725 RF as well as the ability to use glyphosate later in the growing season than with the older Roundup Ready varieties. He may try it next season.
For now, Fusilade over the top of cotton does a good job controlling grasses in cotton. Banvel in corn and Shark in cotton work well on another major weed problem, morningglory. Replogle starts his chemical weed control effort with preplant dinitroanaline.
Conventional tillage is still a key weed control tool in his cotton farming. For example, he follows corn silage harvest in October with at least two stubble disk diskings and in-season cultivation on his 30-inch bed cotton along with herbicides to control weeds.
For more than decade, Wright has worked with Replogle on a variety of UCCE trials. One was on narrow rows that resulted in Replogle switching to 30-inch cotton. Narrow-row cotton helps in weed control by shading out furrows sooner than 38-inch rows.
Another trial looked at minimum tillage. It did not work for Replogle. He is not alone. There has been a lot of effort extended to developed no-till systems in the arid West, but grower adoption has been minimal.
“It may sound backward with all the talk of no-till today, but what I gained from the research we did with no-till is to show how important tillage is,” said Replogle. “I know a lot of people will disagree with me.”
Replogle wants to reduce tractor work as much as the next farmer, but not at the price of reducing yields. “If I could find a one-pass system that worked well, I'd be all for it. But I have not found it yet. To me no-till or minimum till is like starting off the year with a problem. We try all season long to prevent problems; why start with one?”
Specifically, Replogle said two issues soured him on no-till; one was bed preparation and the other irrigation.
“Sixty percent of the battle in growing cotton is getting a stand. It is difficult to get a stand chasing moisture through crop residue. Bed preparation is everything in getting a cotton stand.” Crop residue is a major issue in adopting conservation tillage or no-till in the West where there is little rain or other weathering factors to reduce the residue.
Replogle said he could not irrigate efficiently with residue in the furrows and without cultivation. “We want to get water on and off quickly, and we could not do that with no-till,” he said.
The young Tulare County farmer relies on Pix to control growth. Just as significant is his use of irrigation management to control plant growth and set cotton. “We literally watch plants on a daily basis in deciding when to irrigate. You can tell by the way cotton looks in the afternoon when it needs water,” he said.
Replogle explains that with the heavy use of manure, failure to stress cotton to set fruit can result in a “rank mess” from ill-timed watering. Irrigation is a “huge issue” for him because of the N levels associated with the constant application of dairy waste on farmland, especially on dark, high-water holding soils like Replogle farms.
Replogle has gained his irrigation acumen partly through experience and partly by working with Wright using a pressure bomb to measure leaf water potential to time irrigations.
Wright has conducted a myriad of other experiments with the Replogles, starting when Gil's father still farmed with his son.
“The first experiment we worked with Steve on was the use of potassium,” said Replogle. That trial resulted in a half-bale yield increase with supplemental potassium. Although soil samples often indicate adequate K, cotton may be unable to utilize it. Cotton bolls are a major sink for potassium.
“When I got into farming, my dad encouraged me to learn all I could because times were changing and management was getting much more intense than it had been in the past,” said Replogle.
Wright not only became Replogle's mentor, but his friend as well. “I asked God to provide me with someone who could help me with farming. He did and at the same time provided me with a good friend. It has been a great combination,” said Replogle.
“I am always looking for cooperators and a lot of farmers turn me down because they don't want to put up with the hassles of working with the university,” said Wright. “Gil has never turned me down. I think he has benefited from what we learned on his farm, but more importantly, all the farmers in Tulare County have benefited from the work I have done on Gil's farm.”
Replogle consistently yields more than three bales of cotton per acre. He almost made a four-bale average in 2004, one of the best cotton-producing years ever in the San Joaquin. Replogle attributes much of that to what he has gleaned from Wright's trials. When Wright started working with the Replogles, yields averaged about 2.5 bales.
Besides the potassium and irrigation trials, Replogle learned the value of soil and tissue sampling for nitrogen applications. “I shoot for 200 units of N each year and will go up to 260 if it looks like it will pay off. I learned through Steve's trials that adequate N is very important to achieving high yields” said Replogle. He uses UN 32 as a supplemental N source to manure.
This season, Matt Chase, Replogle's pest control adviser, suggested supplemental N to offset a boll-robbing heat spell where temperatures were above 110 for about two weeks. “I was worried that the extra N would make the cotton rank, but it didn't. It looks like it helped recover from the hot spell.”
Wright's research on the farm also changed the way Replogle achieved a cotton stand.
“We often fight wet cold weather at planting and plant heavy because of it — 60,000 to 70,000 seeds per acre,” he explained. However, planting weather can be ideal, resulting in too many plants per acre to achieve maximum yields. Wright's research determined that 40,000 to 45,000 plants per acre were ideal for Replogle's farm. Replogle purchased a John Deere electronic synchronous plant thinner to achieve that goal when his final plant population is too high.
“We also did economic studies on Temik at planting and proved that always pays off in pest control,” added the young farmer. He has also used it at sidedress and when he follows Wright's guidelines established on trials, it has paid off.
Replogle uses pesticides to control the valley's biggest pest, lygus. Also helping control lygus is strip cutting alfalfa. “I have a neighbor who goes out of his way to alternate alfalfa blocks to keep from pushing lygus into my cotton,” said an appreciative Replogle.
For the past two years Replogle has used InTime aerial imagery to determine variable rate Pix applications. This has come on the recommendation of Chase, who has been working with Replogle since 2002.
The maps recommended three rates of Pix across Replogle fields, 12 and 24 ounces in two areas and no Pix in another. Replogle applied the various rates using AutoFarm guidance and a Raven computer system on a high clearance sprayer to meter the plant growth regulator.
“Matt's dad is Dan Chase, one of the most respected PCAs in Tulare County,” said Wright. Matt worked with his dad soon after he earned his college degree and PCA license. Matt now works for Helena Chemical, Hanford, Calif.
“Gil is a good client. He trusts me to do what needs to be done. He questions me, but the trust we have is one of the things that makes working with Gil a pleasure,” said Matt.
Replogle said Chase has taken over much of the field checking he once did. “When Matt recommends something, he always tells me not only what the costs will be, but what he expects the return to be. He is real conscientious about making as much cotton as possible at a reasonable cost.”
Since Chase has been Replogle's PCA, Wright makes fewer trips to the farm.
“I used to come out here two to three times a week during the season. Now I have to almost invite myself out just to hang out with Matt and Gil to see what's going on,” laughs Wright.