‘High Cotton’

Published 8:17 am Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Submitted Story

SAN ANTONIO, TX – A Gates County farmer is among the winners of the 2015 Farm Press-Cotton Foundation High Cotton Awards.

Southeast – Rick Morgan of Corapeake earned the prestigious honor from the Southeast District. Other national winners were George LaCour of Morganza, Louisana (Mid-South); Ronnie Hopper and his son, R. N. Hopper, of Petersburg, Texas (Southwest); and Mark Watte of Tulare, California (Far West).

The winners and their families were honored at a breakfast held Jan. 6 at the National Cotton Council (NCC) coordinated Beltwide Cotton Conferences in San Antonio.

The High Cotton Awards were initiated by Farm Press and the NCC 21 years ago as a way to demonstrate that cotton growers and their families are concerned about the environment and are the true stewards of their land, air and water. The program, which now has recognized 84 U.S. cotton producers, is supported by a grant to The Cotton Foundation from Farm Press Publications.

“The High Cotton Award winners are some of the best cotton producers in the nation,” said Greg Frey, Farm Press Publications’ publisher. “But they also do their utmost to protect the land, air and water. They represent the very best in environmental stewardship.”

Each 2015 High Cotton winner has a distinct approach to environmental stewardship.

Morgan, for example, has been farming using reduced tillage practices for more than 20 years and went to 100 percent no-till 10 years ago.

“I’m a firm believer in the no-till system not only from a yield perspective, but also from the conservation perspective,” Morgan said. “No-till allows me to not only preserve soil quality and decrease erosion and moisture loss but also burn less fuel, use smaller tractors and less equipment.”

Morgan says no-till also makes his poorer land better by building organic matter but “the bottom line benefit of 100 percent no-till is water conservation.”

“When you keep your water from running off your field, you also keep your nutrients from running off and you keep your nitrogen where it’s supposed to be. No-till helps us do that so it’s a win-win for everybody,” he added.

Louisiana’s LaCour is re-working his land field-by-field to offset the effects of excessive rainfall and to irrigate more efficiently when it’s dry. When he completes the land-forming process, he believes he will use less irrigation water and farm his fields with less fuel and labor.

Practicing reduced tillage for years, LaCour beds up his rows following harvest in the fall and doesn’t touch them again until he makes his planting decisions the next spring. He says the reduced tillage strategy and the improved drainage and irrigation capability are part of an effort “to make sure our soils stay in place.”

LaCour also leaves a portion of one of his fields in trees as part of a wildlife corridor that provides access to more habitat for the area’s black bear population.

The Hoppers also are believers in no-till crop production, and they predict the practice will gain acceptance across the Texas High Plains as farmers deal with the increasingly serious problem of a declining water resource.

The Hoppers say they farm no-till cotton because of soil and water conservation, energy and labor savings, and replacing organic matter in the soil. They noted that technology, including herbicide resistant crops, improved planting/spray equipment and better varieties allowed them to plant no-till cotton. The result has been significant water conservation, improved soil and contributions to better yields.

Watte, a full-time farmer for 39 years, is mostly responsible for irrigation and agronomy on his San JoaquinValley farm. Farming with his brother, Brian, Watt said a lesson they have learned over the years is to protect and utilize beneficial insects which prey on the cotton insect pests.

“We have always been very cognizant and aware of keeping beneficials intact as much as possible,” Watte said. “It’s embedded in us – it’s just what we do.”

Watte uses about 36 inches of water, or less, for cotton on the farm’s Chino series clay loam soils. On the technology side, the Watte family was one of the first growers in the “neighborhood” to laser level farm ground (1979) which improved water uniformity in the fields.

In an article written by John Hart of the Southeast Farm Press, for as long as he’s been farming in Gates County, Morgan has sought ways to make his land better. It’s a strategy he says is critical for achieving top yields.

That’s why 20 years ago he converted some of his land to no tillage while using strip tillage on most of his acreage. After conducting on-farm tests for three years, comparing strip tillage to no tillage, Morgan found that his yields were as good or better on his no-till fields as his strip-tillage land, so he began to phase out strip-tilling and traditional tillage completely.

“We’ve been 100 percent no-till for 10 years now. We started 100 percent no-till when we got out of peanuts,” Morgan said in the interview with the magazine writer. “I’m a firm believer in the no-till system not only from a yield perspective, but also from the conservation perspective. No-till allows me to not only preserve soil quality and decrease erosion and moisture loss but also burn less fuel, use smaller tractors and less equipment.”

Because of his environmentally sound production practices combined with an innovative approach to farming and a willingness to adapt the latest technology, Morgan was named the 2015 High Cotton Winner for the Southeast.

“Rick employs a number of practices to consistently achieve this high quality crop,” said Paul Smith, Morgan’s Extension agent in Gates County.

Smith notes that Morgan’s cotton yields have been above the county average for the past five years and continue to increase each year. Morgan averages more than 1,000 pounds per acre and produces well above 1,300 pounds per acre on good years.

Morgan says no till makes his poorer land better by building organic matter. “It’s worked out great for us,” he says. “I think it’s helped out more on poorer land than out better land, but it works for us on all of our land.”

But for Morgan, the bottom line benefit of 100 percent no till is water conversation.

Morgan’s soils in Gates County are drouthy and shallow which is why he doesn’t grow much corn. But still no-till has helped Morgan improve his yields on his corn acreage as well as his wheat and soybean  land.

In 2014, Morgan planted 1,000 acres of cotton, 1,700 acres of soybeans, 1,000 acres of wheat and 300 acres of corn. He also planted 500 acres of rapeseed in the fall for harvest in late spring. He’s planning a similar mix in 2015.

Morgan is a 100 percent dry land farmer.

“Most of my plots of land are too small so irrigation doesn’t make sense for me, but for me no-till is a poor man’s irrigation system,” he explains.

“Moisture is what makes the difference. When we have plenty of water, we get better yields,” Morgan says. “Our varieties are also getting a lot better. The fiber quality is so much better in the new varieties. Cotton genetics has really come a long way in the last 10 years.”

Morgan notes that he relies on a wide selection of cotton varieties, but yield potential and fiber quality are the key drivers in the varieties he decides to plant each year.

Morgan was the first farmer in Gates County to grow rapeseed. He began working with another Gates County farmer this year who is also now growing rapeseed. Morgan said he likes rapeseed as an alternative to wheat because he can harvest the seed while taking advantage of the aggressive taproot to aerate his no-till land.

“I like no-till, but I feel that my land is really getting compacted from four inches on down. I’m hoping that that aggressive tap root will help my land,” he says.

For Morgan, planting a cover crop of cereal rye is critical in no-till production. He relies on cereal rye to conserve soil and retain moisture. He harvests his cereal rye with a combine about the same time as he harvests his wheat.  He plants his cereal rye behind his soybean land each year.

“I found that I get better stands with cereal rye than other cover crops. Rye fits for me and provides a lot of biomass,” he said. Rye provides organic matter and holds your soil open, especially at the surface so you can capture the water. It doesn’t run off.”

In addition to rye following soybeans, Morgan’s rotation includes planting wheat behind cotton. He plants also plants cotton on his soybean land the next year. “This is a rotation that works for us,” he said.

Morgan’s fertility management includes both soil sampling and zone sampling. He applies chicken litter at planting to get his cotton off to a good start. He rotates the chicken littler on his land whereby each piece of land is treated every other year.  However, Morgan stresses his key to nitrogen management is applying nitrogen as a side-dress to reduce leaching loss and run off.

“We like to apply our nitrogen down lay by. We do put out 20 or 30 pounds at planting, but we don’t want our nitrogen out at the beginning of the year because all of the rain like we had in the past two years, it will wash away,” he said.  “What we do is come back when the cotton is a foot to 16 inches high to apply our nitrogen… We wait until the crop really needs it. It’s when the plant is flowering and really filling the bolls out that nitrogen is needed.”

Morgan is also unique because he uses a spiked wheel injection to apply his nitrogen by lay by. “I used to have trouble with my drivers getting too close to the cotton and cutting the roots off with the disk,” he explains. “But the spiked wheel system spikes the ground and won’t cut off the roots like a disc can do.”

For thrips management this past year, Morgan used Admire Pro liquid in furrow treatment which kept his thrips population way down. “Admire Pro really worked great for us. Thrips weren’t a problem.”

Morgan credits his scouting service, Tidewater Agronomics, Inc., for the effective management of both thrips and plant bugs as well as diseases and weeds. “Tidewater really does a great job. I couldn’t farm without them,” he stated.

In addition to limited thrip and plant bug pressure in 2014, Morgan notes that Palmer amaranth has yet to be a problem on his farm.

“We don’t have a Palmer problem yet.  We have Palmer, but we are able to keep it back by using an overlapping herbicide program. Before one herbicide wears out, you apply another one, and that has really kept out Palmer populations down,” he noted during the interview.

Like all farmers, Morgan is worried about low commodity prices. He relies on hedging and does a lot of market research, but he said he next year will be a real challenge when it comes to prices.

“You’ll have to lock in gains of 5 to 10 perent. In the past, price gains were much larger than that,” he said.

In addition to running his farm, Morgan is part owner and board member of the Gates Cotton Gin. He also is a board member of the Carolina Cotton Growers, through which he sells his cotton. He has been on the Gates Soil and Water Conversation Board for the past 20 years and currently serves as chairman.

Morgan is an advisory board member for North Carolina Extension Cotton Specialist Keith Edmisten and Gates County Extension Agent Paul Smith. He is an active member of the Corapeake Ruritan Club and is a past recipient of the Gates County Outstanding Farm Family of the Year Award.

Morgan’s son, Mickey, has joined the operation following his graduation from Gates County High School.

“He really has farming in his blood.” Morgan says. Morgan’s wife Sue is also involved in the operation.

Morgan says he is honored to be the High Cotton Winner for the Southeast and he credits his family, his staff, Extension and his scouting service for making the honor possible. “I couldn’t have done it without them,” he says.