Matt Mueller planted his first cotton crop on rented land 28 years ago. He was just 15 years old and had to borrow equipment and get advice from his father to get started, but his family has a long history in cotton production, and Mueller knew he wanted to be a part of the future of the industry.
“Cotton has been part of my family for generations,” the Altus producer says. “All four of my grandparents and both of my parents picked cotton by hand.”
Mueller, who won the National FFA Fiber Crop Proficiency Award in 1989, graduated from Oklahoma State University with a degree in agronomy and returned to the farm to increase his crop size and improve his yields. Today, a new generation of Muellers – Matt’s wife Kellie and their four children – now farm 1,800 acres. He says they plant about 800 to 1,000 acres of cotton each year, rotating with wheat, sorghum and canola. He harvests half of his acres – the lower-yielding dry land – using a stripper, while the higher-yielding irrigated land is harvested using a picker.
A cotton picker picks the cotton from the boll by means of revolving spindles, fingers or prongs without material damage to foliage or unopened bolls, and is typically used more than once because cotton is a continuous fruiting plant during the growing season. Cotton strippers are once-over harvest machines typically used in areas where weather conditions prevent repeated harvests. Strippers pull the entire boll, ripe or not, or cut the entire stalk near the ground, and another machine is used to remove the burr and vegetative matter.
Surviving the Struggles
Last year, Oklahoma’s farmers harvested 125,000 acres of cotton, resulting in $52.9 million and making it the state’s eighth top agriculture product. Oklahoma ranks 17th in the country, yielding 591 pounds of cotton per acre harvested. These numbers have seen a decrease over the past three years due to low rainfall.
“The ongoing drought has put a lot of uncertainty in to short-term planning because we are in survival mode,” Mueller says.
But thanks to improved technology, farmers are able to do more with less water. “Water and soil conservation have become top priority,” Mueller says.
Subsurface drip and low-pressure pivot irrigation systems are replacing furrow irrigation to save water. Subsurface irrigation uses buried tubes or drip tape to release water, eliminating surface water evaporation. Pivot irrigation uses low-pressure sprinklers that rotate around the crop fields on timed watering schedules. These systems use less water than the furrow irrigation systems where farmers flow water down small trenches that run through the rows of crops.
Mueller says avoiding waste is all about customized precision. “Every farm is unique. I have mapped and precisely pulled soil samples for variable-rate application of crop nutrients according to a prescription tailored to my farm.”
An Evolving Industry
The cotton industry is used to evolving with changes in climate and technology, and it is no stranger to hard times. Over the years, with improved technologies and equipment, farmers have seen significant improvements in harvest efficiencies including higher yields and faster harvests.
The eradication of the boll weevil pest in the late 1990s through 2005 greatly increased yields and reduced the use of insecticides. Simultaneously, a genetically modified cotton seed that gave protection from boll worms also lent a hand to farmers who were already practicing a more conservative tillage, which saved topsoil and water.
The recent development of module-building harvesting equipment, which picks cotton at maximum efficiency and builds a gin-friendly cotton module, also contributes to lowering farmers’ costs by decreasing their machinery and labor needs.
“There are technologies out there for us to take advantage of and improve our harvests,” Mueller says. “We just have to be willing to do what all other growers have done before us – adapt as the industry changes.”