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Lessons from a Tough Year

February 29, 2012

By Karl Wolfshohl

A High Plains farmer adjusts crop mix to cope with Mother Nature

The withering heat and drought that decimated Texas agriculture in 2011 convinced Wesley Spurlock to modify his crop mix for 2012 and beyond.

p54 Lessons from a tough year
Corn yields typically top 200 bu. per acre for Wesley Spurlock, but after next-to-nothing yields in 2011, he is planting less corn. By doing so, he hopes to have more water to grow as much or more corn on fewer acres.

"We have to water all of the corn we grow, and we’ve always been confident that we can raise 200-bu. to 220-bu. corn any year," he says. "But last year we were humbled.

We learned that Mother Nature can take it all away. We learned that we can add 24" to 26" of water and still lose the crop."

Spurlock farms 10,000 acres of corn, cotton and small grains for himself and family members near Stratford, Texas, and does custom spraying and harvesting.

The northern Texas Panhandle certainly isn’t known for its high rainfall, averaging only 18" yearly. Fortunately, most of it usually falls in the summer and area crops are kept alive and thriving by water pumped from the southern end of the Ogallala Aquifer.

This past year started off dry and got worse. There was essentially no rain through the season, and record heat destroyed corn plants’ ability to convert water and nutrients to grain. On Spurlock’s farm, there were 66 days during the growing season that topped 100°F, meaning "no rain, no humidity and 20 mph to 50 mph winds every week," he explains.

"On June 26, it was 113° on our farm, with 35 mph wind and 5% humidity," he recalls. "It was a convection oven. On that day, we had corn burn up while standing in [irrigation] water. Evapotranspiration was massive. We abandoned lots of acres two days later.

"In other fields, we grew beautiful plants, but we discovered later that we had no corn," he continues. "The timing of pollination was terrible. There were plants 7' to 8' tall that were appraised [for crop insurance purposes]at 1.7 bu. per acre."

What to Do? There isn’t much relief for the heat, but Spurlock is adjusting his crop mix under center-pivot circles this year to provide more water for corn and cotton, in case the drought repeats itself.

If rainfall is back to normal, he figures, the extra irrigation water will help him grow more corn.

Pivot circles that were half corn and half cotton in past years will now be divided into thirds and

will include wheat.

"It’s insurance—not so many acres of summer crop," Spurlock says. "This way, we’ll have more water if the crop needs it." If the year turns out wetter and better than 2011, he will shoot for corn yields in the 260-bu. to 280-bu. range.

His revised crop mix cuts corn acreage to 2,800 from 3,500 in 2011. In a year of ample rainfall and cooler temperatures, he could add more inputs, including water, and grow as much or more corn on fewer acres.

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FEATURED IN: Top Producer - March 2012

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