On a cold, windy, overcast November day near Hydro, Okla., Merlin Schantz and wife Lillian walk down the rows of a partially harvested cotton field. He pauses, pulls the lint from a cotton boll, rubs it between thumb and finger until he isolates a seed, then bites into it.
“It crunched,” he says. He pulls a second boll, repeats the process, and bites into another seed. It crunched, too.
Schantz had hoped to be in the field that day to catch up on a harvest season in which he was already several weeks behind — delayed by a cool, wet October. Picking too soon is not an option. He likes cotton to dry down to 12 percent moisture before he rolls in the pickers.
“Three things I look for at harvest: One, the leaves need to feel like Post Toasties cereal; two, the seed needs to crack when you bite it; and three, in the evening, if the leaves start bunching up and pushing ahead of the row header, it’s time to stop.”
He explains that when the dropped leaves pick up evening moisture, they stick together, bunch, and catch on the front of the row header — a sign that humidity is too high to harvest.
On this day, humidity at midday was pushing 69 percent, with a slight chance of dropping to 61 by late afternoon. “I prefer humidity below 60 percent,” he says. “I’m picky, maybe pickier than most, about harvest moisture.”
Schantz is picky about a lot of other aspects of growing cotton—variety selection, weed control, rotation, tillage, and fertility, to name a few. Conservation is a family tradition, he says. “I get frustrated with people who don’t know what farmers do and claim that we don’t care. Don’t tell me I don’t care.”
CONSERVATION IN DNA
It’s that combination of picky production practices, commitment to conservation, and his willingness to offer acreage to Oklahoma State University Research and Extension for on-farm testing, that makes Merlin Schantz a respected voice for cotton in Oklahoma, and the recipient of the 2018 Farm Press/Cotton Foundation High Cotton Award for the Southwest Region.
Conservation, he says, is part of the farm’s DNA, starting with his grandfather back in the 1930s and ‘40s. “He started putting in terraces. Back then, it took a practiced eye and patience to lay out terraces correctly. My grandfather used an 8 foot long 1x4 board and a 2 foot level.” Schantz’ father-in-law also contributed to conservation efforts on the farm. “He was a ‘cat skinner’ (dozer operator), and was also conservation minded.”
Conservation is part of a stewardship effort that Schantz says is a privilege and a responsibility. “The Good Lord entrusted us with this farm and to take care of His land. We try to honor that gift.”
He also takes issue with those who don’t understand the efforts of farmers, not only to maintain a piece of land, but also to improve it. “They don’t understand that a farm can’t be environmentally sustainable if it’s not financially sustainable.”
Rotation plays an important role in his conservation efforts. The current rotation includes cotton, which accounts for the most acres, peanuts, chile peppers, seed wheat, and soybeans or cowpeas (depending on markets). “I’ve been working for 30 years to create a good rotation, and economics messes it up,” he says, with just a hint of a smile.
Schantz brought cotton back into the rotation after a five-year hiatus precipitated by the boll weevil. “I’ve been working cotton almost all my life, except for those five years when the boll weevil ran us out. I sent all my equipment to folks in Kansas, then five years later, I brought it back.”
He likes the combination of cotton and wheat. “I brought cotton back so I could harvest nitrogen from deep in the soil following a wheat crop. I can plant cotton behind wheat and go one or two years without spending much on fertilizer. I sometimes will have cotton on the same land for three straight years, and then I have to buy some fertilizer. That’s a good example of the value of rotation.”
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He looks to conservation tillage to conserve soil and moisture. “I plant most of my irrigated cotton in no till or Ro-till, and I plant a cover crop on just about every acre. After three years of conservation tillage, we have increased organic matter content, and then the value of a cover crop becomes obvious — organic matter improves the soil. With his Ro-till system, he tills a 10-inch strip to provide good seed-to-soil contact.
“I tend to leave the cover crop a little longer than some other farmers,” Schantz says. He likes to protect seedling cotton from blowing sand damage early in the season. He’s planted wheat for winter cover, but is “thinking about rye. I’ve planted a field of rye, and will take it to seed to plant next fall. I’ve been seeding wheat as late as Christmas, and I think rye will come on a little faster.”
Schantz grows irrigated and dryland cotton. He plants dryland on a two-and-one skip pattern to take advantage of sunlight and moisture. Skip-row cotton does not harvest well with a stripper, he says. “It is very well-suited to a picker.”
He has converted to picker harvesting on his irrigated acreage to improve quality. All irrigated acreage is solid-planted on 36-inch rows, 46,000 to 48,000 seeds per acre.
Maintaining quality makes a difference, Schantz says. “That’s why we switched to pickers. If we sell on The Seam, we have to make high grades, and we can get an 8 cent bump for quality cotton. With all the surplus cotton in the world, quality is what has held the U.S. market together. Quality is the key.”
In the past few years, cotton has come back strong in Oklahoma in the past few years, he says. “The drought of 2011 and 2012 tried hard to take us out of the cotton business. We cut back on inputs for dryland acres after 2011 and ‘12. I cut back in ‘13 and ‘14, but in 2013 my dryland acres made 1,000 pounds per acre, and cotton sold for 80 cents. That was a good year.”
PHENOMENAL COTTON GROWTH
Schantz credits much of cotton’s resurgence to Carnegie Farmers’ Cooperative Gin Manager Jeannie Hileman. “Just 12 years ago, they baled 10,000 bales,” he says. “Over those 12 years, growth of cotton in this area has been phenomenal. In 2015, she ginned 48,000 bales, 60,000 in 2016.” Estimates were that the co-op would gin more than 120,000 bales from the 2017 crop, with a state acreage almost double the previous year, ticking up to a half-million acres.
Schantz also praises Oklahoma State Cotton Extension Lead Randy Boman for research and demonstration projects that test varieties and practices. “Randy played a role in bringing cotton back,” he says. Boman places some of those trials on the Schantz farm, which for years has been a favored spot for tests and demonstrations.
“I started working with Randy in 2011, mostly for cotton variety trials, but also some fertility work and some soil moisture analyses,” Schantz says. “Then I started making the farm available for vegetable research plots and we had a lot of different projects with vegetables.’
As a result of the variety trials, his list of planted varieties sometimes tops 25. “I work with a lot of different new varieties, a few experimental ones. Some of the varieties that were my favorites five years ago are no longer available.”
Soil moisture studies include energy-efficient irrigation practices. “As a result of the trials, I’ve updated some sprinkler packages, but I haven’t changed pumps or drives yet.”
All irrigation is center pivot. He keeps spray nozzles 5 feet or 6 feet above the ground. “I want the sprinklers out of the crop.” He dug his first irrigation well in 1992. “We couldn’t make a profit on dryland cotton, so we added irrigation to generate more income.”
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Keeping the farm sustainable has not come easy for Merlin and Lillian. In the 1980s, Schantz’s father expanded the operation to make room for Merlin to come into the business. “That was not a good time to expand, considering the depressed ag economy,” Merlin says.
When the operation went into bankruptcy, his father listed Merlin as operator. “We held it together,” he says. “We took over a bankrupt business, and it seems like we’ve been bankrupt ever since.”
INNOVATIVE THINKING, DETERMINATION
But, with innovative thinking and determination, he and Lillian saved the farm. They started a custom farming business. “We bought a few pieces of my dad’s equipment, and made a deal with a neighbor to cut his wheat in exchange for using his truck. We established a custom farm business.”
After three years, Schantz’s father turned the farm over to him, and he began looking for ways to keep it solvent. He’s grown vegetables, peanuts, wheat, soybeans, and recently added chile peppers for more diversity.
Now, his sons, Aaron and Ben, his daughter, Jana, and son-in-law, Matt, work on the farm. Another daughter, Elizabeth, is a schoolteacher.
As he and Lillian made their way through their field of cotton last November, he wished he could have been picking. In spite of several setbacks for the 2017 crop, it was making decent yields, he said. Some of his dryland fields looked like two bale cotton. “Irrigated cotton looks good,” he said. “We’ve only picked 150 to 200 bales, and the gin is backed up, so we don’t know how well it’s doing. But quality looks good.” He was pleased with the crop, was hoping for better weather to get it all picked and ginned.
Later, as he drove around the operation, explaining how his great grandfather, a German immigrant, put the farm together around 1890, his sense of responsibility to make it even better was apparent. And he expresses gratitude for the opportunity to farm.
“The Lord has richly blessed us,” he says. “We’ve always had all that we needed.”