Rock The Rotation

Rock The Rotation

(Progressive Farmer photo by David L. Hansen)

Wade Cowan's family has been negotiating with nature since before Texas was a republic. Managing weeds and diseases, and upholding fertility levels boils down to one word on this eight-generation West Texas farm: diversity. A seven-crop rotation maximizes margins and maintains production on sandy loam soils that would blow all the way to Kansas if not for residue left from the previous crop.

Cotton, sorghum, soybeans, peanuts, wheat, corn and sunflowers make up the foundation of the cropping mix. Guar, a legume, is sometimes an addition. Rotating crop technology traits is part of the strategy, too. The family also runs a stocker cattle and a small Red Angus cow/calf operation on wheat pasture, and co-owns a cotton-delinting facility and seed operation. Diversify may not be a synonym for sustainability in the dictionary, but on this Texas farm, it goes hand in hand.

Sometimes that means taking a longer look than the banker has in mind, Cowan says. "For example, we were happy to see technologies come along, but we've always tried to work them into our operation in a way that prolongs their usefulness," says Cowan, based near Brownfield. "That is not always the easiest thing in these lean economic times, and we are lucky to have our long history to prove these points to our lenders. Not all farmers, especially the younger generation, have that legacy."


For example, Cowan tries to plant conventional soybeans, if possible, to also help fight weed resistance in subsequent cotton crops. "Even though we have to buy Roundup traits in soybeans, we've decided to not use them [in soybeans] because we want them available in our cotton system."

Years of back-to-back drought pushed the family farm into grain sorghum, and that led to the introduction of sunflowers into the rotation. "We use sunflowers in our rotation because we have a problem with silverleaf nightshade," he notes. "Sunflowers have a natural enzyme that helps with that problem." Sunflower roots run deep and also help break up any deep hardpan, Cowan says.

Before Bt corn came along, controlling insects in this part of the world might require up to 12 insecticide applications per year. "With Bt, we may have to spray once, but as a trade-off to that, we voluntarily did not use the Bt traits in cotton [to avoid potential resistance issues] because we did not want to go back to spraying corn," Cowan explains.


Field crops are planted in 40-inch rows. Most are irrigated by center-pivot low-energy precision application (LEPA) systems, which help assure that tight water supplies are not wasted. "Some wells have only a 100-gallon-per-minute pumping capacity, while some approach 700 gpm [gallons per minute]," he says. "To help efficiency, we set the stronger wells at 350 gpm."

The irrigation goes toward a balanced rotation that normally includes a legume followed by sorghum, corn or wheat, followed by cotton. "If the legume is peanuts, we try to plant winter wheat after harvest," he says. "If it's soybean, we'll follow it with either corn or sorghum planted the next year. After corn or sorghum, we'll usually plant cotton the following year."

Peanuts, along with providing an additional cash crop, can do much to knock out weeds. "There are some good herbicides for peanuts," Cowan says, noting that Valor and Cobra are among the chemicals applied. "When we come back with wheat, we graze cattle until the March 15 cutoff period to carry it to harvest (under the government farm program). The cattle hold down weeds, and we also spray Amine to help keep it clean."

After wheat harvest, the remaining stubble prevents wind erosion until cotton is planted the following spring. "When we come back with cotton, we incorporate a yellow herbicide and glyphosate," he says. "However, with resistant pigweed becoming more of a problem, we must resort to residual herbicides to control the weeds."

Soybeans have not traditionally been a popular crop in the Texas Panhandle/South Plains region. Most farmers have struggled to make good yields, even with irrigation. However, Cowan averages about 50 bushels per acre (bpa), has made up to 80 bpa and is pushing for 100 bushels. Cowan, who is chairman of the American Soybean Association, believes his multicrop rotation has made those big yields possible.

The rotation has also pushed his wheat yields to 70 bpa on average. "In 2014, we made 120-bushel wheat under one irrigated field," Cowan says. "It was followed by sorghum in 2015, which yielded about 6,000 pounds per acre. Our dryland sorghum also yielded about 3,500 pounds in 2015."

Corn averages about 200 bushels per acre, while cotton averages more than 1,000 pounds. Peanuts yield 2 tons or higher per acre. Dryland sunflower grown in 2015 yielded about 1,500 pounds.


The diversified rotation helps build up soil organic matter and lower pH. "Soil tests show that much of our cropland contains up to 2% organic matter," Cowan says. "A lot of this area [Terry County] is .2% organic matter."

He says the higher organic matter helps keep pH at a 7.4 minimum, which is important in improving crop yield. "We've been able to push irrigated sorghum to about 10,000 pounds per acre on our low-pH land," he says.

Another example of the value of rotation was seen in 2015 in a small drip-irrigated field sometimes used to gauge the benefits of a rotation. "We normally have a 50% cotton, 50% soybean rotation in that field," Cowan says. "For cotton planted where soybeans had grown in 2014, we made about 1,500 pounds per acre on cotton planted June 1.

"That compared to 1,000-pound cotton planted after cotton, the half-circle where we had planned to plant in soybeans, but it was too cool and wet. We had to come back late with cotton. Hopefully, we can get into that rotation this year [2016]."


Cowan is confident that soybeans will work in the Southern Plains region. "Our goal is to make 100-bushel beans in West Texas, and that's not as far away as you think thanks to better varieties and chemicals, and a good rotation."

The amount of sorghum in the Cowan rotation and others in the region may be altered due to large problems seen with sugarcane aphid in 2015. As a result, Cowan says there could be less sorghum and more cotton grown in much of the area.

He normally doesn't let market conditions determine a rotation. "The weather causes variations in rotations," he says. "You don't want to chase a market by changing a rotation."