Consistency and cost-effectiveness are keys to success for Coyt Hendon, and they have helped earn him the 2004 Farm Press High Cotton Award for the Delta Region.

Hendon, who farms 1,000 acres of cotton near Shaw, Miss., consistently produces high yields of high-quality cotton. He also focuses on managing his production input expenses and keeping costs at a minimum - a rule of survival in recent years for cotton growers.

“My 10-year average yield is about 1,000 pounds of lint per acre,” says Hendon. “Some of our cotton picked 1,300 pounds this past year, and some picked less, but we maintained an average yield of about 1,000 pounds per acre.”

Hendon owns 650 acres and leases another 350 acres, with all but about 75 acres of his farmland under irrigation. To better manage production expenses and improve irrigation efficiency, he is precision land-leveling his cotton acreage on a field-by-field basis.

“We land form a field or two each year during the winter months to improve drainage and lessen runoff, both from soil erosion and pesticide applications. Considering that the entire farm is located on Porter Bayou, the soil and irrigation water would run straight into the bayou if it could. We're doing everything we can to make sure that doesn't happen,” he says.

Hendon's efforts at improving his land apparently are paying dividends. “It's easier for us to water the land-leveled fields, and we now use less water to irrigate our cotton. Hopefully, the improvements we're making to the land will continue to increase our water conservation, while still providing the water needed to produce consistently high yielding cotton. We've definitely seen less sediment runoff from our fields,” he says.

Land-forms acreage

Thus far, Hendon has land-formed about 200 acres of his cotton acreage. The majority of the remaining acreage has a natural fall, away from the bayou. “We have touched up these areas, and knocked off the ridges. That's allowing us to use only one run of plastic irrigation pipe across the field instead of two.”

In addition to his cropland, Hendon manages about 60 acres of woods for wildlife, primarily deer populations.

Hendon plants his cotton during the third or fourth week of April or the first week of May, but still doesn't think he's planting quite early enough. “I'd like to get in the fields and get the cottonseed in the ground even earlier. There are numerous benefits to planting earlier. For one, it would allow us to harvest cotton quicker before the undesirable weather comes in. Planting early can really made a difference, especially in recent years when the Delta experienced extremely wet fall weather conditions. Thank goodness we had a dry fall in 2003, and planting date wasn't nearly as big an issue.”

This past year, Hendon planted Stoneville 4892, a stacked-gene variety with early- to mid-season maturity. It was his second year of planting a Roundup Ready variety.

“I really like the convenience of Roundup Ready cotton. We don't have to make nearly as many trips across the field. And, as far as the cost goes, our technology fees combined with the cost of Roundup is about equal to what we would normally spend in herbicide and application costs on conventional cotton.”

The Bt technology is also helpful, he says, but he did have to spray his 2003 cotton crop five times for plant bugs. Despite necessary insecticide applications like the ones he was forced to make to control heavy plant bug pressure, Hendon says he carefully manages all herbicide, insecticide and herbicide costs on his farm, always striving to get the most bang for his buck.

Staple cotton

Hendon has successfully marketed his cotton both independently and through the Staple Cotton cooperative marketing pool, which has enabled him to maintain acceptable profit margins even during times of low prices. “I've really been satisfied with Staple Cotton, and I'll be in their marketing pool until I die. They do a good job each year.”

One year, Hendon used Staple Cotton but decided to pull the price trigger on his cotton himself. “After that, I told the folks at Staple Cotton to tell me that I could never get out of the pool again. This was probably in the early 90s, and I found out quickly that it didn't work well for me. I decided that they can do a much better job of marketing my cotton.”

Hendon says he did hit the high price for cotton during the year he named his price, but it was very time consuming and made him a “nervous wreck.” “I worried myself and everyone at Staple Cotton to death. It took me substantially longer to sell my cotton that year, but I was able to recoup the additional storage costs. I got my money back out of it only because that was the one year when it paid to hold cotton. But I'm not built for such risky ventures, and I won't be trying it again.”

Hendon, whose family has been farming for several generations, is pretty much a one-man operation. He and his wife Charlsie have twin daughters, Gracen and Caroline.

“In my grandfather's generation, everyone in my family farmed. Now, the only people in my family still in farming are me and one of my cousins,” he adds.

e-mail: dmuzzi@primediabusiness.com