Lessons from a no-till cotton farmer in the Texas High Plains


The Texas High Plains can be unforgiving with lack of rainfall, high temperatures and powerful wind gusts. Barry Evans, a Swisher County, Texas, farmer, has learned to embrace the challenging environment and find success with his cotton operation. Evans, of Kress, Texas, spoke about his management practices at High Plains Journal’s recent Cotton U event.

“This is a hard place to farm,” Evans said. “Once you get on the west side of the 100th meridian, it gets dry pretty quick and that’s where we are. Our pan evaporation rates are twice that of other states like Nebraska, North Dakota, and South Dakota, even if they get the same rainfall.”

Evans is a fourth-generation farmer and due to the declining Ogallala Aquifer, converted all of his farms to no-till in 1996. Evans is always focused on improving sustainability on his operation because it makes both agricultural and financial sense for the future.

“We live sustainability every day,” Evans said. “It’s not part of our job description, it is our job description.”

He shared some statistics from the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol that showed the improvements farmers have made toward reducing environmental impacts. In the past 35 years, land use efficiency has increased by 49% and soil loss has been reduced by 37%. Producers have reduced water usage by 79%, cut energy usage by 54% and sliced greenhouse gases by 40%. He said the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol’s national goals for 2025 are to increase land use efficiency by 13%, reduce soil loss by 50%, reduce water use by 18%, increase soil carbon by 30%, reduce greenhouse gases by 39% and decrease energy use by 15%.

For Evans, his no-till practices have been a key to becoming more sustainable while improving yields. He rotates half cotton, half grain sorghum, but has seen wheat and cover crops work in place of grain sorghum.

“I plant the sorghum with a drill on 10-inch centers,” he said. “I plant the sorghum thicker than necessary so it covers the soil and builds residue and then I plant the cotton in between milo rows.”

No one can control the weather and when and how much it rains, but Evans looks for ways to capture and best utilize the moisture his fields do receive, and planting sorghum is part of his moisture strategy.

“When you have dryland farm, there’s only one thing that really matters and that’s captured rainfall,” Evans explained. “Everything else is a distant second and that’s why the stalks are so important to help capture that rainfall. When a raindrop falls, it’s falling fast and from a high level. When that raindrop hits the ground and there’s nothing to stop it, it disrupts your soil structure and you get a half-inch of penetration and after that your water infiltration drops drastically. If you stop that raindrop by hitting residue and let it fall gently into the soil, then it increases the water infiltration.”

Evans said water storage is also deeper at the 2- to 4- foot level in no-till fields. He said a no-till rotation also eliminates volunteer cotton, there is often less disease pressure and there is increased cover and wind protection.

“You may need less fertilizer as well because you’re getting the breakdown of the residue that is contributing nutrients back into the soil,” he added.

Furthermore, no-till practices decrease time in the field and input costs that come with operating equipment, which means fewer breakdowns.

“My total tractor and sprayer hours, excluding harvest, average 0.3 hours per acre, 4.5 gallons of fuel per hour and 1.35 gallons of fuel per acre. There are also fixed cost savings on depreciation, tires and equipment repairs. I’m a lot easier on tractors and I can keep them much longer.”

However, Evans is quick to point out he still faces his share of problems farming in an arid Texas climate.

“Our farm is a silty clay loam soil in most places and those silt particles will filter up at the top and if I don’t have any residue cover, I’ll get dirt blowing worse than anybody,” he said. “You also have to be timely on weed control with no-till farms and it can be hard to establish cover when it’s dry. My farm isn’t drought-proof, drought still gets it, but what I’m trying to do is make some incremental improvements and those improvements can make a big difference in the bottom line.”

Lacey Vilhauer can be reached at 620-227-1871 or [email protected].