Sunday, January 27, 2013

Cotton Farming doesn't take a winter holiday

Since we are in the dead of winter out here next to the Chihuahuan Desert, one might think that I see a lot more of the Farmer I Kiss.  After all, what would a cotton farmer do while it's too cold to grow cotton?  If I could find him, I would ask him!  So I decided to head out to the farm.
The Dirt Mover!!  Reminds me of a Transformer movie.

When I finally found Daniel, he was in his tractor with a big yellow dirt mover repairing the terraces that were damaged this fall when we had over 10 inches of rain. When fields have slopes to them, these terraces are built, which are really just small dirt dams all running parallel in the field allowing us to harvest and hold the rainwater and topsoil.  The parts of the fields that hold the water in front of the terraces had over filled after the "Hundred Year Rain Event" and finally broken through creating wash-outs which allowed the water to fill up in front of the next terrace.  
Wash out over knee high
Wash flowing into our coastal grass field

Luckily the terraces on the lower end of the field were big enough so that we didn't lose the water and topsoil.  Our coastal grass field caught the water on the other side (which means we should make some really great hay this spring!) 
Hay Hay Hay this spring!

Now comes the slow task of repairing each of the wash-outs without creating holes in the field.  And I do mean S-L-O-W!  One bucket at a time, Daniel finds soil from the right spot and slowly bumps his way back up the field to put the load in the wash-out.  Moving two inches of soil across the terraces on 200 acres of land, one bucket at a time, is certainly not as fast as those old Tonka Trucks used to be in my back yard.  Carefully repairing the terraces can take several weeks in order to not cause damage to other parts of the field.
Small wash out already repaired

Once the the wash outs are filled in, the soil must be put back into condition for raising cotton.  Daniel will hook his tractor to the chisel plow and plow the field from top to bottom.  The chisel plow is 20 feet wide and plows only about 3 to 4 inches deep.  This will only skim the top to loosen the soil and break up all the tractor and harvester tracks from the previous year.
Repaired terrace after running the chisel plow

After the farm has been chiseled, Daniel will hook his tractor on to the lister, a plow that makes beds, or rows, in the soil about 6 inches tall.  He will lay off nine 40 inch rows at a time.  These rows follow the contours of the terraces and also help to hold the precious rainfall we hope to receive this spring.
Hooking onto the lister
  Daniel has found by trial and error over the past 40 years that this minimum tillage combination of shallow chiseling and forming rows works good to keep the top soil from blowing before the cotton is planted and to keep the surface moisture available.  There are some no-till farms in the area, but they are not having the success with cotton that minimum tillage is having.  The desert environment is presenting challenges for no-till that hopefully will be worked out, such as heavy grass infestation and surface moisture that sinks with the extreme heat. For now, our minimum tillage practice can require less herbicide usage than the no-till and the rows help to keep the surface moisture closer to the top for sprouting the newly planted seed.  We normally have only two herbicide applications per year and replace other needs for herbicide applications with spot tillage for weed control.  Daniel likes to have a conventional practice that balances the lowest chemical inputs and lowest tillage instead of going completely one direction or another. 

When all the repairs, conditioning and rows have been completed on the first farm, it all has to happen on the next farm, then the next if I hope to see the Farmer I Kiss this winter, I will have to hitch a ride in his tractor (which happens to be a great place to steal one of those famous farmer kisses!)
All be here again next fall!

To see more about our soil and water practices, check out our earlier blog  Maybe the most important harvest of all.

Also follow us on our Facebook page as we start a new year of raising cotton on the edge of the largest desert in North America  Kissed A Farmer