Specialist notes changes in farming

It's never just another day at the office for Charlie Burmester, and that's what he likes best about his job.

“Some mornings, my wife will ask me what I'll be doing that day, and I tell her I'm not real sure. No two days are ever the same, and that's the best part,” says the Alabama Cooperative Extension System cotton agronomist.

Burmester, who is stationed at the Tennessee Valley Research and Extension Center in Belle Mina, has been recognized by his peers from across the Cotton Belt as the 2001 Extension Cotton Specialist of the Year. The award was presented at the Extension Cotton Specialists' annual banquet held in January during the Beltwide Cotton Conferences in Anaheim, Calif.

The annual award and banquet, sponsored by Uniroyal Chemical, has been a feature of the Beltwide Conferences since 1984. Extension cotton specialists representing every cotton-producing state select a recipient each year based on leadership and service to the industry.

Burmester also enjoys the fact that his position is a 50-percent research and 50-percent Extension appointment. “It gives me the opportunity to work on both sides and to ‘practice what I preach’. I can take whatever I'm doing in research and tell a grower that I have first-hand experience in knowing if something does or doesn't work. I don't have to take someone else's word for it,” he says.

Burmester, who grew up on a small farm in Cullman County, Ala., has spent most of his 21-year career in north Alabama's cotton-rich Tennessee Valley. During that time, change has been the only constant, he says.

“It's difficult to keep up with all of the changes in cotton production — they have occurred so fast. When I first came to the region, we still had a lot of 300 and 400-acre cotton farmers. Most of them are gone now, and we seem to always be talking about 1,000-acre increments.

“Everything is bigger and faster. Most producers are buying these four and six-row cotton pickers, and they need about 1,000 acres of cotton just to pay for the equipment,” he says.

The toughest part of Burmester's job, he adds, is keeping up with the new technology being used in cotton production. “So far, we've been able to stay ahead of farmers, but we've seen the lag time from when new technology is available for research until it becomes a part of production diminish from several years to one or two years in many cases. With new varieties, for example, we no longer get three or four years to look at them before they are released.

“And farmers are trying to get everything possible from the crop. They'll adopt something very quickly if they think it'll save them a few dollars.”

Cotton producers in the Tennessee Valley were forced to quickly adopt new technology in 1996, after the 1995 crop was literally wiped out by resistant tobacco budworms, notes Burmester.

“We always had been fairly cautious about adopting new varieties, but we essentially had no choice after 1995. The newly released Bt variety was planted on more than 90 percent of our acres. At the time, it was the largest concentration of Bt cotton in the United States. Fortunately, the technology worked, and we had a good year in 1996.

“That experience made growers a little less cautious about trying new varieties. They had to gamble in 1996, and it worked. It makes it a little easier for them to take a chance on something else new in the future.”

The disaster of 1995 had a huge impact on cotton production in the Tennessee Valley, says Burmester. “It opened the eyes of many of our growers, and they realized how much money they were spending on insecticides. It changed everyone's’ philosophy of growing cotton. Nineteen ninety-five almost put us out of business, and nobody could afford a repeat of that disaster. Our growers had to either change or get out of the cotton business altogether.”

Urban expansion also has changed the cotton production in the Valley, he says. With Huntsville and its high-tech industries, and a burgeoning automotive industry, many cotton fields are disappearing, he says.

“We had a period of rapid urban expansion several years ago, and we seem to be going through another one. In a lot of areas, houses and industries are springing up and large cotton fields are becoming smaller fields. A new Toyota engine plant is locating in north Huntsville, and that's where the bulk of our cotton production is located.

“I'm not sure that's progress. You like to see new jobs coming to the area. But from an agricultural standpoint, it's hard to watch as some of the best farmland disappears.”

One change for the better affecting the region's cotton production, says Burmester, has been the adoption of conservation-tillage systems. This past year, at least 60 percent of the area's cotton was planted in some type of conservation-tillage system, and he predicts that number will be higher this year.

“Several years ago, several farmers jumped into conservation-tillage, and we had a few problems, so they went back to conventional-tillage. In the last two years, however, we've seen a huge expansion in the use of no-till systems. And there are several reasons for this increase.

“For one, it requires less labor, and that's a real benefit considering the labor shortage that's affecting our farmers. Two, there's the direct economic benefits. Conservation-tillage requires fewer trips across the field, and with the increasing price of diesel fuel, growers can see an immediate impact on their bottom lines. And three, the advent of Roundup Ready technology and new herbicides make weed control much easier.”

Burmester has conducted conservation-tillage experiments at Belle Mina since the mid-1980s, and most of the results have been positive. Much of the research, he says, has focused on planting a winter cover crop.

“Planting a cover crop is key to having a successful conservation-tillage system up here. Growers need to plant a cover crop to protect their fields from soil erosion and moisture loss. In addition, cover crops such as wheat, oats and rye can help protect emerging cotton plants from wind storms. Increasing the surface organic matter helps in many ways, including water retention and nutrient availability.

“Rye is gaining in popularity as a cover crop because it makes residue faster, and we're we have a shorter growing season in the Tennessee Valley. We've also found that root systems of rye plants can help alleviate soil compaction and even inhibit some nematode and weed growth.”

Most growers in north Alabama are drilling in a cover crop after cotton harvest or they're mixing cover crop seed in with phosphate and potassium and spreading it in the fall, says Burmester. “A drill is good, but it can be slow. With the other method, growers can spread the seed and work it in lightly.”

The timing of the cover crop burndown also is important in achieving success with conservation-tillage, he adds.

“We've found that the best time to turn down a cover is about three to four weeks prior to planting. If growers burn down their cover crops any earlier than that, there probably won't be enough vegetative residue left at the time of planting to protect their fields from soil erosion and moisture loss. The cover crop will decompose to the point where it can't serve its purpose.

“And that's especially true with wheat and rye cover crops. You'll have adequate cover at planting time, but that won't last very long into the growing season. We usually like to see a 30 to 40 percent coverage.”

Another change occurring in Tennessee Valley cotton production is the increased use of irrigation, says the agronomist. “We're seeing a lot more irrigation systems being installed. The drawback in this region is finding a water source. We'd have more irrigation if we could drill a well in the middle of a field and find water, but we can't.

“We get most of our water from streams, and we have to pump it to the middle of the field. Farmers who can irrigate have greatly reduced their risks. Irrigation gives them a more consistent crop, even in dry years. Two bales per acre is the norm for our irrigated producers. This past year, several growers made 1,200 to 1,300 pounds per acre with irrigation.”

As Burmester looks ahead to another growing season, he predicts an increase in north Alabama's cotton acreage. “Based on the price of other crops, most growers here intend to plant more cotton. The final acreage, of course, will depend on weather conditions during the spring. We expect to see a continued expansion of cotton acreage in those counties along the Tennessee line, where corn and soybeans once were the primary crops.”

E-mail: [email protected].

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