2018 High Cotton Award winners cover

2018 High Cotton winners: Commitment to conservation practices

Conservation is a key element for High Cotton Award consideration.

Water conservation, rotation, cover crops, on-farm trials, and taking advantage of technology to improve efficiency and collect data to use in management decisions, play crucial roles in the operations of the four Farm Press/Cotton Foundation High Cotton Award winners for 2018.

Conservation is a key element for High Cotton Award consideration, and these farm operations display a strong commitment to soil and water stewardship.

Winners for 2018 are Nick McMichen, Centre, Ala.; Joe and Jack Huerkamp, Macon, Miss.; Merlin Schantz, Hydro, Okla.; and Ron Rayner, Goodyear, Ariz.

The program is co-sponsored by Americot, AMVAC, Bayer FiberMax/Stoneville, PhytoGen, Dyna-Gro, FMC, John Deere, and Netafim.

Here are brief descriptions of some of their conservation efforts.


Brothers Joe and Jack Huerkamp at Macon, Miss., agree that two things had a direct impact on their return to farming profitability — irrigation and cotton. Through the years, they always maintained an unwavering allegiance to cotton. 

They farm separately, but their production methods are similar. Both understand the importance of irrigation, and utilize a combination of methods. Joe has one 30-acre field with underground drip tape, which is rarely found in their region. 

“I’m still not convinced it’s right for us on a large scale,” he says. “Our ground cracks, and rodents also chew through the exposed tape. But I’m not giving up on it, because I believe it can reduce our water use and increase our yields.” 

Their sons farm as well. Joe’s son, Tyler, probably has the first and only tailwater recovery irrigation system in Noxubee County. He uses gated pipe to flood irrigate, pushing some water uphill — which is impossible with polypipe. He can pump water to a field 10,000 feet away, and relift any runoff going into a nearby creek to reuse until it is gone or until he is done irrigating. 

Retention ponds catch and accumulate water through the winter. They use several meticulous monitoring programs through the growing season, and are sticklers about shutting off water flow to any field when it nears the ends of rows. “We push water across quickly,” says Joe, “and then shut it down to conserve water and prevent overwatering.”

Installing drainage tile to fields with poor drainage, using rotation, and cover crops contribute to their conservation efforts. In 2017, 100 percent of their production ground was planted in cover crops. “Cover crops improve water retention and help prevent erosion, while improving soil health,” says Jack.

Read more at Joe and Jack Huerkamp: 2018 High Cotton winners.


Nick McMichen, a diversified, tech savvy, fifth generation Centre, Ala., farmer, employs technology to improve efficiency, protect crops, and conserve resources, while maintaining yield and quality. 

He and his family — wife Freida, son Matt, daughter Mindy, and her fiancé, Tyler Bruce — grow about 1,600 acres of cotton, 600 acres of soybeans, 400 acres of wheat, 300 acres of corn, and in 2017, for the first time, 160 acres of peanuts. They have 500 acres under irrigation and use AgSense to operate the pivots.

They take soil samples on 2.5 acre grids, and use precision, data-based technology to apply variable rate seed, crop protectants, and fertilizer. The Accufield system from Agri-AFC is used for the grid sampling and fertility program. 

McMichen tested three different soil moisture probes for Auburn Extension, and decided on the Aquaspy probe. He installed drip irrigation on about 60 acres 20 years ago. He cooperates with Auburn University Extension on numerous field trials to test new practices and varieties, and also participates in variety test plots in Delta-
pine’s New Product Evaluator program.

He has taken advantage of matching funds available through the Alabama legislature to install center pivots and construct a 12-acre reservoir to collect and store water for use during the growing season. He participates in the Conservation Stewardship Program, and uses riparian buffers to protect streams on his property.

Read more at Nick McMichen uses data, likes being connected and cotton.


Conservation is a family tradition, says Merlin Schantz, Hydro, Okla. Conservation is a part of the farm’s DNA, starting with his grandfather back in the 1930s and ‘40s. “He started putting in terraces,” Schantz says. 

Conservation is a part of a stewardship effort that he says is his privilege and responsibility. “The Good Lord entrusted us with this farm, and to take care of His land. We try to honor that gift.” He credits his wife, Lillian, for working alongside him through some tough years.

Rotation plays an important role. Currently, rotation includes cotton, which accounts for the most acres, peanuts, peppers, seed wheat, and soybeans or cowpeas.

He looks to conservation tillage to conserve soil and moisture. “I plant most of my irrigated cotton in no-till or Ro-till, and plant a cover crop on just about every acre. After three years of conservation tillage, we have increased organic matter content — that’s when the value of a cover crop becomes obvious. Organic matter improves the soil. 

“I tend to leave the cover crop a little longer than some other farmers,” Schantz says, to protect seedling cotton from blowing sand damage early in the season.

He has updated some sprinkler packages as a result of soil moisture monitoring trials. All irrigation is center pivot. He keeps spray nozzles 5 feet to 6 feet above the ground. “I want the sprinklers out of the crop.” 

Schantz dug his first irrigation well in 1992. “We couldn’t make a profit on dryland cotton,” he says, “so we added irrigation to generate more income.”

He offers acreage to Oklahoma State University Research and Extension for on-farm testing, and also makes land available for variety trials each year.

Read more at Merlin Schantz: He’s picky about his cotton production practices.


Ron Rayner and his family’s Goodyear, Ariz., farm’s multi-year minimum tillage crop rotation system reduces water use and soil erosion, and saves on equipment, labor, and input costs.

Launched in 1996, their system includes no-till planting after wheat harvest, crop rotation, border flood irrigation, and a conservation tillage system. 

“It’s basically a conservation agricultural system. It’s the only way we can farm with a true no-till system,” he says, noting that plowing is needed only when newly acquired fields are readied for planting. 

The three elements of their system that fulfill the definition of conservation agriculture include:

  • Continuous minimum mechanical soil disturbance.
  • Permanent organic soil cover (plants or residue).
  • Diversification of crop species, grown in sequences that are beneficial.

The farm operation includes brothers Earle and Robert, and their sons, John and Perry, plus wives of the three brothers. Together, they farm about 6,000 acres, including about 4,000 at the Goodyear home farm, and another 2,000 acres to the southwest near Gila Bend.

Their crop mix in 2017 included upland cotton, alfalfa, durum wheat, and forage sorghum.

The farm’s water source is mostly groundwater, and the highly organic soils from rotation reduce crop water use. Average water use for a conventional Arizona cotton crop is about 42 inches. 

Water use for cotton under the minimum-till, double-crop system for wheat and cotton grown in the same year dropped to 26 inches per crop (18 inches below the average), and water for wheat totaled about 23 inches. Combined, total water use for wheat and cotton was less than 5 acre feet per acre.

Read more at Minimum tillage spells success for Arizona’s Ron Rayner.

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