Years ago, business guru Jim Collins (author of seminal management/leadership books Built to Last and Good to Great) spoke to a group of college students. He gave them 10 pieces of advice. Number 4 on that list was: What is your questions-to-statements ratio and can you double it? “Imagine going into every situation not with how to be interesting, but how to be interested, how to ask questions and how to learn from everybody you meet,” Collins said. While Luke Bebereia, Tulare County cotton grower, may not have been in the room the day of Collins’ speech, he’s been following that advice for decades. “I’m one of the younger cotton growers in the area,” he says. “And I started pretty young when my father passed away. To learn, I had to watch others and ask a lot of questions.”

“I was very fortunate to have really good cotton farmers for neighbors,” he continues. “The Clarks and the Wattes are some of the best cotton growers around. They taught me a lot. They still do.”

Luke Bebereia

That accumulation of learning resulted in quite a cotton growing year for Bebereia in 2015, despite it being a year where most of his acreage was planted to a new variety. “I heard about 764 (PHY 764 WRF) from my neighbors, he says. “We grew it on hundreds of acres and had the best-looking fields we’ve ever had. Our highest yielding field of 764 went 4.6 bales. Our lowest-yielding field 4.1 bales – and that was on a field that we didn’t think would ever reach four bales.”

Ground Prep

Like many of the veteran cotton growers, Bebereia believes reaching high yields begins months before a seed is even dropped in the ground. “Good ground prep is the beginning of the high-yield process,” he says. “After harvest, we shred the fields, put cow manure down at about 20 ton per acre,
then disc twice, then chisel it, then disc once or twice again. All the tractor work – it’s labor and equipment and fuel – but we have a lot of equipment and people on staff, so we can knock it all out pretty fast.”

Bebereia admits that process isn’t exactly minimum till, but knows the extra passes are worth it. “You watch the guys that do a really good job year after year, and they work their ground. They rip it. They disc it. They do it the right way. Once in a while, someone will try to shortcut the process. It may work for a year, but after that you’ll see yields start to drop, whether it is cotton or corn.” Fields are bedded up with crop rotation flexibility in mind. “Everything is furrowed for cotton, corn or beans,” he says. “We want the flexibility to choose the crop as late as possible in the spring.”

Planting and Seed Selection

“Earlier planted cotton generally does a little better,” he says. “So we watch the ground temperature and weather patterns and plant as soon as we can. Ten days of warm weather before and after planting is ideal. We want the cotton nice and healthy in case an April storm comes through. This year we had a really good planting season – one of the best we ever had.”

Bebereia had seen PHY 764 WRF perform well on neighboring farms in 2014. In 2015, he grew 325 acres of it. “You always get a little nervous with a new variety,” he says. “We don’t want to be in training mode for three years to figure it out. It needs to work the first year.”
It worked. “Every field we picked of 764 went over four bales,” he says. “And I’m not a four-bale grower every year. In 2014, we averaged 3.7 bales.”

2016 Plans

Bebereia expects cotton acreage in his area to be higher in 2016. “Corn is usually the alternative crop and the current price for corn is down,” he says. “Plus, corn uses more water than cotton.” He expects to plant 500-600 acres of cotton in 2016, with as much of that in PHY 764 WRF as possible.
And while cotton prices aren’t at all-time highs, he thinks that Acala prices above a dollar a pound can pencil out on his farm. “I think the roller ginned cotton is here to stay,” he says. “All our cotton was roller ginned. Combine that with four-bale fields and you can make a good return.”