Mike Tate appreciates the rich legacy of his family's north Alabama farming operation, but he also keeps a keen eye towards the future, and it's that vision that has earned him the 2009 Farm Press High Cotton Award for the Southeast region.

The roots of Tate Farms in Madison County, Ala., trace all the way back to the mid-1800s, when the family relocated from Tennessee, and before that from Virginia.

“My father Homer started this farm in about 1946, and he began leasing other properties and expanded the operation,” says Tate, who is now a partner in Tate Farms along with his father, brothers Steve and Jeff, and cousin Pat Brown.

The farm currently consists of approximately 5,000 acres in north Alabama's Tennessee Valley, with 3,000 acres of cotton, 1,000 acres of soybeans, 400 acres of wheat, 800 acres of corn, and 60 acres of pumpkins, with the annual Tate Farms Cotton Pickin' Pumpkins becoming a successful agri-tourism venture drawing up to 45,000 visitors each fall.

“Our cotton acreage may change some, but unless things get a lot worse than they are now, we can't go too much lower,” he says, adding that the operation is one of a handful of principal owners of a local gin, and they have to ensure the gin remains viable.

“We were rotating our irrigated ground, one in four years into corn. But when the prices improved, we went to every other year in corn. That works well for us. We were pleased with irrigated corn even before the prices improved — it improves both the corn and the cotton yield. I like where we are now, because it allows us to rotate to some other grains, and we get the rotational benefits,” he says.

Tate, a crop science major in college, primarily prepares the farm's comprehensive cropping plan each year, determines and schedules field work, works on conservation issues, oversees cotton marketing through Staplcotn, and manages all farm program issues.

He cites two of his proudest achievements as leading the effort to install irrigation and adopt no-till practices — two big reasons the farm continues to consistently produce high-quality cotton.

Tate served on the DuPont/National Cotton Council Leadership Class of 1986-87, and it was during that time he recognized that irrigation was a common link among most of the successful farms he was visiting. By 1988, the first irrigation pivot was in operation on Tate Farms, and within five years, the irrigated acreage had grown to 1,300. Included in that acreage is some drip irrigation — a rarity on an Alabama row-crop farm.

“Our drip-irrigated cotton is usually our best cotton,” says Tate. “With drip, we can water the cotton a little earlier and a little later than normal. We started experimenting with drip irrigation about eight or nine years ago, working with Larry Curtis of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System. We initially put in about three acres. Then, after about four years of looking at it, we went to a larger scale. We now have about 180 acres of drip with plans to ultimately add several hundred more acres.”

Irrigation has definitely made a difference in cotton yields, he says. “Considering the size of our fields and the water source, we had done just about all we could with center pivots, so our next option was drip irrigation. We've had to develop our surface water sources, with four 1.5-mile long pipelines,” says Tate.

Drip irrigation is sometimes promoted for its water-savings quality, but that hasn't been Tate's experience. “We don't see it that way at all — we just see it as being more efficient. We really think we use as much water with drip as we do with center pivot, but we're utilizing the water better. That's where our increased yield is coming from.

He has improved the efficiency of the center pivots over the years by adding electronic monitoring equipment, including a Valley Base Station. He's also in the process of replacing high-pressure with low-pressure nozzles. For scheduling irrigation, Tate relies on gypsum blocks, the advice of his consultant, Bill Webster, and 20 years of experience.

Tate says the farm's transition to no-till cotton wasn't quite as easy as the move to irrigation, with limited success in the beginning. The great success the Tate's experienced no-tilling soybeans behind wheat in the 1970s and 1980s didn't translate so smoothly to cotton.

“We saw a yield drag early on from no-till because of a shallow compaction in these red clay soils that caused the young plants to j-root, with the compaction getting worse with each year of no-till. We continued to work on possible solutions, discovering better results with one year of wheat and soybeans and a year of cotton and then repeated.

“Although the goal at the time was to find a solution that would allow continuous cotton production, this instead led us to look at other cover crops. As a result, rye has become our preferred cover because it has an excellent root system that helps to disturb the compaction layer.”

Having settled on an acceptable no-till system, Tate began converting 20 percent each year to no-till until reaching 100 percent, where the farm has been for several years now. Tools such as Roundup Ready technology also helped in the transition, he says. The change, he adds, has brought many benefits, including improved soil structure, improved soil erosion control, increased soil moisture retention, increased cation exchange capacity, decreased soil compaction, and decreased energy use.

In addition to no-till, Tate Farms also has undertaken other extensive programs to protect and improve their land. These projects are visible in the form of several miles of contoured terraces, drainage basins and grassed waterways.

The nuts and bolts of the Tate's cotton production system includes a burndown application in March of Roundup and Clarity, with planting beginning on about April 10. “That has changed over the years. My father would always plant during the first of April. One disadvantage of no-till is that soils don't warm up quite as fast, but it hasn't been that much of a factor.”

Tate has primarily grown Stoneville 5242 in recent years, but he's looking for options. “This year is the last year it'll be available, so we're desperately searching for something to take its place.”

Two early Roundup applications are made before the fourth or fifth true-leaf stage. Then he'll come back with a layby application of Roundup plus Envoke.

“We need to look at some changes there because we're starting to possibly see some major pigweed resistance. We're not sure yet if we have a problem, but pigweed and marestail are starting to become a concern. We got away from using a yellow herbicide, but we're back to using one now and we have for several years now.”

For insect control, Tate relies on his consultant Bill Webster who checks the cotton twice a week. “We use Temik on everything — it gives us an advantage, especially when it comes to spider mites.”

A unique challenge faced by Tate Farms has been the rapid urbanization of land bordering the farm. Area schools and residents of subdivisions have voiced their concerns, especially during boll weevil eradication. But Tate has always been willing to listen to such concerns and he has strived to be a good neighbor in the process. In fact, Tate Farms is considered the preferred neighbor by many in the area.

Tate continues to contribute many hours of his time to serving the cotton industry, with active participation in the Southern Cotton Growers, Cotton Incorporated, the National Cotton Council, the Alabama Farmers Federation, the Alabama Farmers Co-Op, the Alabama Cotton Commission and the Boll Weevil Foundation.

Mike and his wife Sherri have a daughter, Sheree, and a granddaughter, London.