Texas Home Run

Robbie Harkey Hits Four-Bale Yields On High Plains

By Tommy Horton
Editor

 
Call it a Texas home run that was hit out of the ballpark. Or maybe it was the crop season of the decade. Put whatever label fits, and it might come close to describing what happened to Texas producer Robbie Harkey and his cotton crop in 2013.

To the uninformed outsider, it would seem impossible that a producer could deliver a four-bale yield on acreage north of Lubbock near Hale Center – while dealing with the state’s third year of drought.

However, that is exactly what happened. True, the majority of Harkey’s 1,200 acres is irrigated, but that doesn’t minimize the enormity of what happened. It was a case of everything coming together at the right time – timely rains, high-performing varieties, effective drip irrigation and excellent management practices.

It all started in 1993 for Robbie. That is when he began working on the farm with his father Billy and brother Keith.

Dealing With Tough Times

Things were going well back in those days, but tough times arrived in 2000. Robbie will be the first to admit that he was still in the learning stages of farming. He probably wasn’t ready to deal with so much acreage and all of the problems that come with such a responsibility.

That’s when he decided to start farming a smaller amount of acreage on his own, while his father and brother managed their farms. He also became more conscious about implementing better management practices.

“Learning to manage your farm business is a tough thing these days,” says Harkey. “You have to keep up with technology, and the hours are long. But I also know that I wouldn’t be happy doing anything else.”

Harkey quickly acknowledges that he has evolved into a meticulous, hands-on farmer who realizes that each day is a challenge in the harsh weather conditions of the Texas High Plains.

He is willing to accept those difficult times if he can somehow have the opportunity to produce excellent yields on his cotton. Even though he grows small amounts of corn and wheat, his first love is cotton.

Receiving A Nice Reward

Maybe it’s because of those hardships in earlier years that make him appreciate seeing his work pay off. When he planted two Deltapine varieties, he had good expectations but even Harkey was a bit overwhelmed when the Deltapine experimental variety, 12R224, yielded 2,164 pounds per acre in 2013. That was slightly better than the 2,113-pound yield that his DP 1321 B2RF delivered in 2012.

He also grows some FiberMax varieties and is always open to trying new varieties after he has studied the data and seen how the cotton performs on his fields.

“I definitely don’t have all of my eggs in one basket,” says Harkey. “I’m a farmer who likes to try new things, and I have never planted just one variety.”

One might suggest that having drip irrigation guaranteed that the two Deltapine varieties would have big yields. But most observers say it was just part of the equation. One obvious factor was timely rain occurring in the area between Hale Center and Lubbock. That contributed to the excellent performance from the Deltapine varieties, which were tailored for the dry conditions of West Texas.

Ironically, the 12R224 variety performed so well that Deltapine is retesting it for possible commercial release in the future.

Harkey has been a participant in the Deltapine New Product Evaluator (NPE) program for the past three years, and his involvement presented an opportunity to observe how varieties would perform before being considered for commercial launch.

“Any day that I can make a four-bale yield will make me ecstatic and happy,” he says. “I don’t go out there thinking that I’ll make six or seven-bale yields. I’m realistic, but I’m also looking for that profit line.”

Harkey likes to look at the big picture when he thinks about the future of cotton production in the High Plains. He and his fellow producers know that the Ogallala Aquifer is not recharging itself and was drawn down a lot during the past three years. His goal is to slow the draw-down and preserve every drop of water for the future.

“We’re doing a good job of protecting our water, and we’re getting better at it,” he says. “But the aquifer’s situation concerns me. Some people think we’re out of the drought, but we aren’t.”

Timely Rains Helpful

If a producer happened to be in the right location in the High Plains, he might have gotten lucky and received a timely rain. For example, Harkey recalls one July afternoon last summer when his area received five inches of rain.

He would preferred to have had the rainfall spread out over several days, but he was glad to receive it anyway.

“We were just lucky to be in the right place at the right time,” says Harkey. “You could have gone a few miles up the road, and another farm probably didn’t get a drop.”

If there is a silver lining in this situation, it’s that cotton is a desert plant that can handle drought conditions up to a point. It still needs access to enough water to gain a stand and develop a healthy root system. Both of the Deltapine varieties, according to Harkey, were bred for drought tolerance and adapt well to the environment of West Texas.

Water issues aren’t the only hot button topics for High Plains producers. Harkey is quick to point out that resistant pigweed is now on the scene, and producers are aware of its potential impact.

He can recall attending a meeting two years ago when the topic of weed resistance came up. At the time, he didn’t think it was a problem that would ever affect his farm.

“I was in the back of the room and must’ve been half asleep,” he recalls with a laugh. “I should have paid more attention than I did. Because, within two years, we now have that weed. We’re waiting on the dicamba product to try and solve it. It’s real, and it’s serious.”

Deltapine is retesting it for possible commercial release in the near future.

Harkey has been a participant in the Deltapine New Product Evaluator (NPE) program for the past three years, and his involvement presented an opportunity to observe how varieties would perform before being considered for commercial launch.

“Any day that I can make a four-bale yield will make me ecstatic and happy,” he says. “I don’t go out there thinking that I’ll make six or seven-bale yields. I’m realistic, but I’m also looking for that profit line.”

Harkey likes to look at the big picture when he thinks about the future of cotton production in the High Plains. He and his fellow producers know that the Ogallala Aquifer is not recharging itself and was drawn down a lot during the past three years. His goal is to slow the draw-down and preserve every drop of water for the future.

“We’re doing a good job of protecting our water, and we’re getting better at it,” he says. “But the aquifer’s situation concerns me. Some people think we’re out of the drought, but we aren’t.”

Seeing Is Believing

Two persons who have had a ringside seat for Harkey’s experience are consultant James Todd and Deltapine sales representative Mike Heath. Each observed what the hard-working Texas producer accomplished – and they are equally impressed at the final results.

“Robbie is a great farmer to work with,” says Heath. “He lets us make the recommendations on what we need to do. He’s what I would call a hands-on farmer. As he will tell anybody, he knows about tough times, and that explains his proactive approach.”

Harkey’s ability to adapt to conditions also is evident on some of his acres that don’t have good access to water. On one of those replanted fields, DP 1212 B2RF still yielded three bales per acre, which was a nice surprise.

Perhaps Harkey’s long-time friend and consultant James Todd sums it up best about this success story.

“Robbie is a guy who doesn’t procrastinate on anything,” he says. “When it’s time to tackle a job, he reacts immediately and moves fast.”

And what does Harkey do for an encore after this record-breaking four-bale crop in 2013?

“Hey, let’s go for five or six bales,” says Todd. “Seriously, big yields are great, but we still have to make a profit. This is what it takes to make it out here on the High Plains.”

Contact Tommy Horton at (901) 767-4020 or thorton@onegrower.com.


FAMILY SUPPORT HELPS IN A BIG WAY

Robbie Harkey credits fiance Shelly and her son Brendan for supporting him on the farm and being there through the good and bad times.

“It is really special to have the support of our blended families,” says Robbie. “Shelly has two kids, and I have one, and we all pull together. It is not easy being married to a farmer, but she was raised on a farm, and we are looking forward to our life together.”

Shelly has a daughter Kylie, while Robbie has a daughter Sheena Youngs who has two sons, Jensen and Bishop, and husband Noel.

“Sometimes I can tell what kind of day Robbie has had by the tone in his voice,” says Shelly. “But that is how it is in farming. Every day is different, and we keep on trying to make things better.”

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