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Innovations in Cotton Farming

by Aubry Heinrich

Successful agriculture will always be built with hard work and sweat equity, but new developments in equipment, software, and science are giving farmers more tools than ever to improve the outcome of their work. 

Variable-Rate Irrigation & Soil Moisture Probes

Variable-rate irrigation software is a new addition to current irrigation practices. As soil conditions consistently change throughout each watering cycle of a pivot or drip irrigation system, variable-rate irrigation helps farmers monitor the health of their crops and conserve their water usage. Variable-rate irrigation allows the irrigation system to react to changes in the field, such as soil type and water retention. This software will adjust the water flow to the needs of each part of the field. 

“Every producer knows they have different areas of a field that usually make more cotton, but we routinely put out the same volume of water across the entire field,” said Rick Kellison, Texas Alliance for Water Conservation Project Director. “So, if they can adjust the amount of water they are putting on portions of the field, they are much more efficient with those inputs and it is much more profitable to them.” 

New soil moisture probes can also be placed sporadically throughout a field to record the differences in soil climates such as soil retention after a rain. The probes are placed approximately 36 inches into ground, with several sensors placed around the probes. The sensors monitor the health of area beyond what a farmer can see above ground. These systems are capable of addressing the health and watering needs of different soil types throughout a field. 

“Probes give the producer the opportunity to visualize what is going on beneath the soil,” Kellison said. 

While the soil water sensors measure the volumetric water content in each area a probe is set, the software helps store the data collected by each probe. The data collected from the probes includes information such as soil nutrients and water retention. The program then controls the watering rate of the irrigation system to each perspective area, giving the appropriate amount of water to the plants and soil. 

This software helps maximize yield while controlling water efficiency and decreasing watering costs. By measuring the soil saturation in different places of the field, this monitoring system can accurately sense the correct amount of water needed for the crop. 

“Water is our primary managing factor,” Kellison said. “So, anytime we can do a better job of managing that resource it has a definite impact on yield and in turn, has a definite impact on profitability.” 

Larger and More Advanced Equipment

Since farmers rely on high-quality equipment to get their work done, manufacturers are producing more efficient and high-tech farming equipment. One of the most methodical, time-saving advancements is combining two different pieces of equipment into one. For example, a cotton baler is a piece of equipment that has combined the entire cotton picking or stripping process to one machine. 

As harvest presents a time crunch to get all the crops out of the field before the weather takes effect, taking fewer trips through a field allows producers to expedite the process and move on to the next field. Larger and more efficient equipment for farmers has become a staple for advancement in the industry. 

Equipment manufacturers are also becoming innovative in the farming industry by producing larger equipment. No longer are the days of a two-row cotton stripper or picker – the cotton industry has now advanced to 12-row harvesting equipment. 

New and larger equipment, such as a cotton baler, is made possible because of software and technology in farming. Farmers can safely run and properly use the latest equipment to their advantage because of equipment sensor software and GPS software. This combination of current software and new equipment is another example of innovations pushing the industry forward. 

Precision Planting & Spraying

With the current lag in the supply chain having no end in sight, the input costs of farming are rising substantially. Innovative software development helps farmers maximize seed, pesticide and herbicide use to help keep planting and spraying as efficient as possible. 

Logically using cottonseed can significantly decrease a producer’s yearly input costs. Modern equipment and software control the planting depth and distance each seed is from the next. By using more precise and detailed tools, farmers can avoid excessive use of cottonseed and crowding while placing each plant in an environment that will allow it to grow. This technology also works with guidance systems to track what part of the field has already been planted to avoid double planting. 

“We have a finite amount of resources,” said Dane Sanders, PCCA District 4 Director. “Whenever we are able to put the right amount of seed per acre, or whenever we can variably apply our inputs, we are absolutely seeing the benefits from that.” 

Once the seeds are spaced and planted systematically, it is up to the farmer to maintain the plants’ growing environment through pesticides and herbicides – yet another input cost expected to go up this season. Precision spraying focuses on dosing efficiency in a field by identifying the crops’ information, such as canopy density and shape and structure of the plant. This analysis of each field while spraying helps reduce waste, avoid unnecessarily high costs, and maintain production efficiency. Any increase in efficiency helps farmers continue to stay in business and maximize their profits.

On the Horizon: Blue River Technology

Innovation in the agriculture industry is a constant. New technology is always being improved and developed. Farmers must continue to look for new practices and equipment that allow their operations to grow profitably and sustainably. 

Sustainability is the driving purpose behind Blue River Technology. According to their website, they “empower customers – farmers – to implement more sustainable solutions: optimize chemical usage, reimagine routine processes, and improve farming yields year after year. We believe that focusing on the small stuff – pixel-by-pixel and plant-by-plant – leads to big gains.” 

Focusing on the small stuff in a field is exactly what the Blue River technology has been developed to do. Their See&Spray SelectTM technology has the ability to target only the unwanted weeds in a crop instead of coating herbicides across a field. 

This Blue River technology offers farmers the opportunity to save 77% of their herbicide when compared to broadcast spraying, according to the Blue River website. Even though farmers are using less chemical on their land, herbicide as a method of weed prevention still remains effective with the See&Spray Select technology spraying 98% of weeds. This technology is made possible through the use of modern camera and nozzle equipment. A camera detects change in color on fallow ground and signals the nozzle to turn on and spray only the targeted weed. It is designed to reduce chemical inputs by only turning on nozzles when weeds are detected. 

Farmers can expect to see the Blue River Technology near them in the next couple of seasons with the equipment manufacture John Deere, adding their software to their new 400 and 600 Series Sprayers, according to the Blue River Technology’s website. 

By implementing new technology in their operations that reduce input costs, farmers are making their operations more profitable and sustainable for the years to come. 

Changing for the Better

Implementing new ideas, new services, and new technology drives every facet of agriculture forward. Variable-rate irrigation, equipment advancement, and precision agriculture are just a few of the numerous innovations currently used by cotton producers today. The world is ever-changing, and technology is constantly advancing. By implementing new software into cotton production, PCCA and its members continue to clothe the almost eight million people who rely upon us. 

Agriculture and cotton farming have come a long way. While innovations in production can undoubtedly help push the industry forward, no new machine or software can replace the heart of a farmer. What makes a farmer is their love for the land they farm and the crops they produce – and nothing is more effective than that.