Eric Seidenberger made his first cotton crop back in 1994 and when he went to see his banker to settle up after harvest, the loan officer looked at Eric’s cotton check and asked: “Is this all there is?”

Eric assured him that it was, indeed, the total income from his cotton crop.

The banker took another look at the check and another look at Eric and asked: “Have you thought about trying something else?”

He had not — and 16 years later, after harvesting more than 2,000 acres of Glasscock County, Texas, cotton, he says he’s never regretted not following the banker’s advice.

His perseverance in the face of discouragement and a few less than stellar crop years, has put Seidenberger among an elite list of Southwest cotton farmers — winner of the Farm Press/Cotton Foundation High Cotton Award for the Southwest region.

Seidenberger started small, leasing land where he could, and for the first few crops using some of his father’s tractors and equipment.

“Dad [Dennis] still farms his own land, as he has for 43 years,” Eric says. “Our operations are totally separate, but we talk a lot about our crops. If not for his help and advice, and the use of his equipment during the tough early years, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”

Without help from family, many young farmers today have little chance of getting started, he says. “And it’s twice as expensive now as it was when I started.”

Seidenberger is farming 2,950 acres — 2,150 in cotton, the rest in wheat, and also grazes Angus cattle on 3,000 acres of pasture He irrigates 1,225 acres, 1,000 with subsurface drip, has a 125-acre pivot, and furrow waters 100 acres. He plans to put in another 100 acres of drip for the 2011 season.

Drip irrigation, reduced tillage, terracing and grassed waterways are critical parts of his production and conservation programs.

He installed his first drip irrigation in 2003, a 45-acre block. He says drip offers three distinct advantages:

High Yields: “I get high yields from my drip irrigated cotton,” he says, noting that yield consistency with drip is a huge advantage. His yield goal for dryland production is one bale per acre; he hopes to get 2.5 bales per acre with pivot and furrow irrigation; and aims for 3 to 4 bales on drip fields. He’s made 2,000 pounds on some fields and qualified for the FiberMax one-ton club four years in a row. He’s on the bubble for 2010.

Water use efficiency: “I average 95 percent efficiency with drip, compared to furrow water, which has about 50 percent efficiency,” he says.

Water use efficiency is a huge advantage with subsurface drip, he says. “Water is always an issue for West Texas farmers. We’re supplying supplemental water and our water table is dropping some every year. We were getting to the point with furrow irrigation that we couldn’t get water all the way to the end of the rows.”

After he put in the first 45-acre system, he added 450 more acres the following year.  “We still were not seeing the labor benefit with that little bit — we still needed labor for the furrow systems.”

Less labor: The main advantage of drip, Seidenberger says, is labor savings. “We were moving pipe all day long for furrow irrigation. We’re also using less tillage on drip irrigated fields; we aren’t cultivating four or five times in the summer, as we do with furrow irrigation. We spray Roundup early and cultivate once.”

With almost all his cotton now drip irrigated, the labor toll is much less. “We get everything done — until harvest — with just two full-time laborers.”

Multiple cultivations was once a labor-intensive routine, and less tillage also saves labor, Seidenberger says. “We would cultivatein furrows for the water and cultivate six or seven times during the summer. With drip, we’re down to one cultivation. On furrow irrigation, we still cultivate three or four times.”