There are areas of the world that appear to bear the brunt of divine geological wrath. But with sweet soils and sweeter yields, the fields just south of Alexandria, La., can't claim such distinction.
“Man, you can grow pretty much anything around here — row crops, vegetables, whatever. It's just a great farming area,” says Kurt Vanderlick.
Along with his father, David, and brother, Brian, Vanderlick farms mostly cotton and sugar cane near Lecompte, La. — some 12 miles south of Alexandria.
“There's a whole lot of ice-cream soils around here, but we have our share of clays as well. Most of our clay is where the no-till is. Some folks grow rice on their clay, but we put ultra narrow row cotton on ours,” says Kurt, a fourth-generation farmer.
The first reason the Vanderlicks got into UNR was soybean prices. UNR was an experiment started three years ago on a few Vanderlick acres. Although it was a “try-out” year, in the end the cotton crop still did better than soybeans would have. The Vanderlicks were quickly sold on UNR.
“Being able to put cotton on such ground is a big deal. The biggest fallacy people have about UNR is in comparing it to conventional cotton. It's rarely going to be a fair comparison — certainly not in the way it's grown around here anyway. Instead of comparing it to conventional cotton, you should be comparing UNR to soybeans or sorghum or some other crop that would go into heavier, background soils.
“I've had some disagreements with Extension folks about this. Wide-row cotton produces more and better crops. Well, on ice-cream ground that's true. But that isn't where UNR has its fit. With soybean prices where they are now, UNR makes an incredible amount of sense. Would you rather make $200 of profit per acre or $25?” asks Vanderlick farm consultant Randy Machovec.
With Machovec's urging and their willingness to give new things a shot, the Vanderlicks tried UNR. Last year, they grew 1,000 acres of UNR cotton.
“Farmers must change and try different things. We're convinced of the need to do that in order to survive. That's how we approach things,” says Brian.
For an example of this, look no further than the burndown on Kurt's cotton ground.
“I've got two different sets of chemicals out right now. On sugar cane (over 1,500 acres) we've also got two different sets. For the last couple of years, I've taken a smaller field — maybe five acres — and put experimental chemicals on those few acres to see what happens,” says Kurt.
Early this year, Kurt put out Roundup (the old $33-per- gallon variety) and Aim on come cotton land. April 1 was the cut-off for 2-4D, so he had to spray it or come up with something else. Kurt put out Gramoxone, 2-4D, Direx and a surfactant.
“I calculated the costs. It turned out that it was cheaper to spray the Roundup/Aim than it was to put that big concoction together. Now, I'm going to see which does a better job. Which one will carry me further? I want to take both past planting of UNR. I want to see how far past they'll work and apply what I learn to next year's crops.”
Is minimum-till big in the area? “That picked up when the fuel and fertilizer prices jumped. We've seen more going in the last couple of years. Prior to the current fuel prices, most of the no-till/minimum-till work has been done because of soil erosion and that type of thing. We don't have that problem around here. So our area going to more minimum-till is directly attributable to higher fuel and fertilizer costs,” says Machovec, whose company — Pest Management Enterprises, Inc. — is responsible for some 75,000 acres in the area.
“That's another reason we love UNR: there's no tillage situation. We're planting flat on 7.5-inch rows. We put down a pre-emerge for weed control and then we come in with a Roundup Ready system or Buctril. That's it,” says Brian.
Until the Vanderlicks turned to UNR, the system just wasn't found in the area. In order to get a custom harvester to come in, Machovec and colleagues had to find 100 acres to be planted in UNR cotton. It wasn't easy.
“Several years ago, I was in Memphis at a seminar where UNR was brought up. Lots of naysayers were there. There were a few guys around here willing to give it a shot, though. In order to get a harvester here we had to have 100 acres (there's now between 3,000 and 4,000 acres of UNR in the area). My company got with these guys and they all pledged to grow 30 acres, 20 acres, whatever. We got the 100 acres between three farmers,” says Machovec.
The funny thing is the custom harvester was from northern Arkansas. He drove two harvesters to central Louisiana at 15 mph. All for 100 acres.
“But he did us such a favor because without that harvester, we'd never have known the potential of UNR here. We put pencil to paper and found that it would pay to get a harvester in here,” says Machovec.
Shortly thereafter, Machovec bought a harvester out of west Texas. The Vanderlicks followed suit. Both now own identical Deere 7450s.
Both harvesters were modified. Heavy-duty PVC pipe was added to the reels. “We were finding that without the PVC pipes, we'd get vines inside the open areas and it would have a snow-ball effect. We weren't getting cotton back to the auger easily enough. So we came up with this idea and it's worked really well,” says Machovec.
A large square of plywood or Plexiglas was also mounted to the harvesters. The area's UNR does so well that too much cotton was being lost when the auger threw it out. The boards were added so the plants “will hit it and go back down. We don't lose any cotton this way,” says Brian.
Typical UNR year
What's a typical UNR year for the area? Is there a typical year?
“Last year, when we finished picking, we cut the stalks and then put out the phosphate and potash. We then ran a disk over the field one time. This spring, we burned it down and then we're going to plant it. Actually, some of the land we didn't even disk,” says Kurt.
When they plant, the Vanderlicks will likely broadcast Cotoran or Direx behind the drill. Before the cotton hits true fifth leaf, they'll put out Roundup broadcast. They will also sling around 40 units of urea.
“We normally put that out just after we get a stand. Then the Roundup goes on and that's it,” says Brian.
Machovec and colleagues then monitor the crop once a week until squares appear. Once fruiting begins, they'll be in the field an average of twice a week until defoliation.
Varieties and gins
“With UNR, we want to keep the plants short. Often folks will say the plants shouldn't be but 2 to 3 feet high. We've found that isn't necessarily true around here. We can pick 3.5-foot cotton pretty easily. We've found varieties that will run through the strippers a whole lot easier than others,” says Brian.
“The best by far is Paymaster 1218. We can pick it side-by-side with any other variety and we'll tell you to the row which of is 1218.”
Do the gins concur? “Pretty much. There's a gin further south that's been receiving the UNR with open arms,” says Brian.
Some of the local gins were against it, though. “They had to slow down to accommodate it. But, you know, everyone in agriculture has to change with the times. The gins that want the cotton seem to find ways to accommodate UNR. Too many farmers see the potential of this crop and they'll latch on. Anyway, with the newer ginning equipment available, you can gin UNR cotton almost as fast as conventional,” says Machovec.
Besides 1218, the Vanderlicks are looking at a couple of other UNR varieties.
“DPL 451 looks good. BXN 47 is a good grower, but has too many branches. With this kind of cotton, the bigger the boll, the better. 1218 is absolutely the best for us,” says Kurt.
What was the yield comparison? “I picked 1,443 pounds per acre on conventional. On our heavy, heavy clay ground last year, we had acreage that picked 900 pounds. We were blessed. At the end of this year, we'll be able to give exact comparisons because we're planting some UNR and conventional side-by-side,” says Kurt.
It still isn't easy
The Vanderlicks say the thing that novices should know about UNR is this: it can't be planted and then left until harvest. It isn't that easy.
“There's a lot of things to pay attention to. If you've got vines in a field, don't plant UNR there. There's a lot of trial and error.
“We're still playing with the UNR fertilizer. We're not sure about the exact amount of fertilizer to put out — at least not the nitrogen. The phosphate and potash can be used as in wide-row. Zinc and boron and sulfur are put on by soil test,” says Kurt.
If there's a weak spot in a Vanderlick field, a soil test is performed. The next year, another soil test is done just to see if there's some micro-nutrient or something else missed.
One topic sure to get UNR farmers upset is the way UNR cotton is discounted from the get-go. If there's going to be an automatic discount for UNR cotton, why grade it?
“There's a fallacy that UNR cotton is stripper cotton. That's just not true. A stripper goes through cotton fields and strips the plant of everything.
The harvesters we use don't do that. The machines we use simply pluck the bolls. There's not a whole bunch of trash like the name implies,” says Machovec.
UNR cotton in central Louisiana has gotten grades of 11 to 21. Brian had a field of 11 bales of 11s.
“I'd never had an 11 before. The first I've gotten was in a UNR field. And I still got docked! That needs changing,” says Brian.
Youth and change
Young farmers are getting harder to find. Even harder to find, claim many, are young farmers willing to get involved in agricultural issues and organizations.
Unlike others, however, the Vanderlicks aren't wallflowers.
“It really bothers me. We're the youngest farmers around. It's hard to take time from families and jobs, but we as farmers need to promote ourselves and our products because no one else is going to do it for us,” says Brian, who — at 31 years of age — serves as parish Farm Bureau president and was a finalist for last year's Louisiana farmer of the year.
“There's already a lack of young farmers. But it's hard even among the few out there to find one that's aggressive and wanting to give new things a shot. It's a hard trait to find,” says Machovec.
“That's why we'll try anything if it makes sense. We're clawing and fighting to stay upright,” says Brian.