Today's American cotton grower is the original survivor. Growers like Max Koepnick, who has been growing cotton around Queen Creek, Ariz., for four decades, has been around a lot longer than those reality television survivors.
Cotton growers are goal setters when the first seed hits the warm Arizona soil. Koepnick is shooting for a four-bale average.
“I know it's unrealistic, but that's what we shoot for anyway,” said the veteran cotton producer. Reality is he needs more than 1,500 pounds to break even in this cotton market.
Four years ago he averaged 1,844.7 pounds of lint per acre. In 2000, his average was 1,866 pounds per acre. Things didn't work out quite as well in 2001, but he still made 1,659.4 pounds per acre.
Koepnick farms about 2,500 acres of cotton, much of it leased ground in a holding pattern for developers until houses and golf courses spring up on it. That is the nature of a lot of Arizona farming.
Koepnick often gets a rent break on his cotton ground. He's a preferred grower, according to his pest control adviser, Scott Heileman who looks after Koepnick's cotton.
“He's simply a good grower,” Heileman says. “There are guys out there who really want to lease ground to him because they know he'll take care of it and keep it clean. That means something when it comes to making a deal.”
“A lot of the ground I farm doesn't even have a short staple cotton base, so a government payment is not an option,” Koepnick says. “That means you've got to make it primarily on yield, and we do that by putting inputs into the crop that return more than what we're paying for and giving it every chance that we can to make cotton.”
Land preparation is one of the keys Koepnick believes will maximize yields. “I would like to rip-list the ground every year, but that's an expensive operation,” he says. “Even so, I make sure that's done at least every three years. What I'm trying to achieve with that operation is a frost line fracture just like it occurs naturally back in Iowa and Illinois. That's some of the best farming ground in the country, and I think it's at least partially due to the fact that every winter the ground freezes and fractures. We don't get that kind of weather here, so I try to accomplish the same thing mechanically by ripping the ground.”
Ripping improves water penetration, believes Koepnick, and it promotes better root development. “By opening up the soil, you gain all sorts of advantages,” he says. “You're giving the plant an opportunity to develop at its full potential because you're enabling much more extensive feeder root development.”
Uniform seed bed preparation follows the ripping operation. He plants on 38-inch rows in a “6 and 1” skip row configuration.
“I never plant a guess row,” he says. “I'm trying to eliminate any error. Besides that, the outside row always out-produces the other rows by about 25 percent.”
Waits until April
Koepnick maximizes that shooting for a plant population of 50,000 — 55,000 per acre on the outside rows as compared to 42,000 — 43,000 per acre on the inside rows. He doesn't push the planting date either. He waits until April when the ground is warmer and plants deeper to avoid losing moisture for germination.
“Planting in March is just an excuse to do it over again,” he says. “If you wait until April, you'll wind up with healthier plants. In the last four years, the best yielding cotton I've grown was planted April 22nd and 23rd.”
Koepnick chooses primarily Bt varieties to help deal with pink bollworm pressure. Last year, he planted D&PL 33B and D&PL 448B. He planted D&PL 388 for his refuge acres.
“If you plant down lower, I feel like you won't lose as much moisture as you will if you plant on a high bed,” he says. “My goal is to wait about 45 days from planting until the first irrigation. The plant will be squaring by then.”
At planting, Koepnick applies four pounds of Temik per acre in furrow. Some growers have slashed it from their budgets in an attempt to save money. Koepnick believes cutting it from his operation would cost him money.
“It's all about getting back more than what you spend,” he says. “Temik is one of those inputs that consistently returns more than what it costs. It doesn't take much to damage a cotton plant when it's just coming out of the ground. Even a light infestation of thrips can knock yields significantly. If you try to rely on foliar materials to manage them, you're still going to get a certain amount of damage from infestations at sub-level thresholds. And then there's the issue of nematodes. We've got some root-knot nematode pressure on some of these farms, especially on the sandy loam ground and especially on ground that has been in continuous cotton for 15 to 18 years. Temik helps control nematodes at the same time it's controlling thrips. It also helps control any other problems that might pop up such as fleahoppers, striped tail beetle or darkling beetle. They're not as much of an issue as thrips, but they still inflict damage from time to time.”
Koepnick is meticulous about how every product is applied. “I think application precision is crucial, not just with Temik, but also with fertilizer or anything else we're putting out,” he says. “I watch my tractor drivers like a hawk to make sure we're getting it on uniformly and precisely where it needs to go.”
Heileman agrees. “Max's cotton is the cleanest cotton I check,” he says. “I think it's Heileman plant maps to monitor the crop's progress and pinpoint any problems in crop development.
“I think the key is to really concentrate on making cotton from about node 10 to node 16,” Koepnick says. “If you can maximize your yield potential within that range, then you've got a good chance at a successful year.”
Koepnick also sidedresses Temik to control insects, particularly lygus, during the critical fruit-setting period. He applies the product at 14 pounds per acre, again concentrating on exact placement to maximize efficacy.
“I think it's important to know exactly where you're putting the product and how your irrigation water is going to move through the soil profile,” he says. “If you know those two parameters and place the product correctly, you can get maximum uptake of the product by the roots.”
Koepnick counts on about four weeks of lygus control with the sidedress application. His goal is to hold the bottom set.
“That's really a critical period,” he says. “If you can hold those squares, it sets the stage for the rest of the season. Then, you can push it like a locomotive to make as much cotton as possible.”
That strategy is evident in his use of Pix. He hardly ever uses any because his boll load is sufficient to keep the plant in a reproductive, rather than vegetative mode.