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True Loyalty

Oklahoma Couple’s Love For Cotton Never Wavers
   

By Amanda Huber
Southeast Editor


Travel down Old Route 66 in western Oklahoma, and you’ll find what you would expect: old, boarded-up buildings where grocery stores, gas stations and other businesses once stood.

But on the longest stretch of the original highway near Erick, Okla., you will also find the home of Darrel and Sherri Gamble, a husband and wife team, who farm 3,000 acres of cotton, wheat and cattle.

“It’s just me and my wife,” Darrel says. “Cotton has been good to us. It is a crop you can count on, but a tough crop at times. It gets into your blood, just the whole aspect of it.”

Darrel Gamble grew up on a cotton farm and started plowing when he was just 11 years old. He has been on the farm ever since.

“It is a true partnership,” he points out. “Sherri plows, plants and runs the combine or stripper. Whatever needs doing, she can do it.”

Sherri says farming has always been a good way of life.

“We had our kids with us, and it has always been done as a family,” she says. “We’ve had our challenges, and it’s been harder in different years. Now it’s just what we do.”

Established in 1972, the farm is named G4 Farms, which stands for the Gamble four – Darrel, Sherri and their two children. But like many other producers, the Gambles did not encourage their children to continue the farming operation and are now left with many decisions on what to do.

“We’ve got a lot of land here and I’m not sure what we’ll do with it,” Darrel says. “We started out very small, then neighbors retired, and we rented their land little by little. We’ve gotten stretched out now – with 3,000 acres for two people. We think about slowing down, but you just don’t know when to do that.”

So the cycle of producing cotton continues each year for Darrel and Sherri.

2008: Stormy Start

Darrel says he tries to plant between May 10 and May 15.

“I want to plant earlier, but you have to plant when it’s hot enough that the cotton will want to come out of the ground,” he says. “If we plant earlier, we always get caught by a cool snap.”

Early into the 2008 crop, the Gambles’ cotton got hit with some of Oklahoma’s extreme weather.

“We had 105-degree heat,” Darrel says. “Then, when the crop was growing good again, we had a terrible storm with high, high winds.

“We watched the storm on the television that night, and the weatherman said, ‘now this area is where the heaviest winds are going to be,’ and he pointed right to our area. So it was a really devastating storm. Not long after, someone asked me if hail had hit our cotton.”

Despite the wind storm, the crop is coming along nicely for the Gambles.

“We’ve had good boll set this year,” Darrel says. “Oldtimers say you should get a bloom by July 4. We had one this year on July 7, so that’s always a sign I go by.”

Sherri says her husband always brings her the very first bloom he finds each year, and now it’s something she looks forward to each season.

“When you walk out and see flowers like this, you know there’s a boll there and that’s a good feeling,” Darrel says.

Irrigation: A Newer Input

The 2008 crop comes on the heels of what the Gambles say was a very good 2007 crop.

“It was a wet summer in 2007,” Darrel says. “We got the combines stuck a few times, but it was good for the cotton. We had two and three-quarter-bale cotton. We had timely rains, and even the dryland made two bales.”

Irrigation is a relatively new input for the Gambles’ farm.

“Producers just north of town started putting in irrigation eight to 10 years ago,” Sherri says. “Now we have about 200 acres of continuous cotton under irrigation.”

“It takes so much water,” Darrel says. “Last year, we had a good soil moisture profile so we planted more dryland. This year, we didn’t look as good, so we didn’t plant nearly as much dryland.”

Necessity Of No-Till

Although they knew the wind would blow their sand around, Darrel says one incident about seven seasons ago prompted them to switch to no-till production.

“For years, we plowed and plowed, and one day my wife was plowing and she plowed up a water line,” he says. “I knew that I had buried the water line more than two feet deep years ago. We saw firsthand what the erosion had done.

“You’ve heard the saying, ‘they aren’t making any more land.’ Well, that changed the way we do things.”

As to the benefits of the no-till switch, Sherri again points out that well-known fact about Oklahoma – the wind blows a lot.

“We get so much wind, but the cotton doesn’t blow,” she says. “Also, when we get a rain, the water runs off clear instead of muddy, and I know we are saving a huge amount of fuel.”

“This is very poor land,” adds Darrel. “Water goes through it fast, that’s why you have to put so much of it out.”

Sherri says they plant a cover crop on it right after harvest.

“If it comes up good, we might graze it or hay it,” she adds. “Then we burn it down and plant right into the standing stubble.

“This has been such an innovative thing for us because this sand will blow out if you get any wind, but the stubble holds it.”

Timeliness Remains Important

The Gambles’ rotation includes hard red winter wheat planted in the spring and harvested in June, with two years of cotton and one year of wheat.

“Fertilizer costs have us going back to more of a wheat rotation,” Darrel says. “It takes less fertilizer and less rain.

“Rotation is the best thing in the world, but I’ve learned that you can’t have something growing all the time.”

Oklahoma State University Extension specialists use a small portion of the Gambles’ field for variety test plots. Darrel says he and Sherri tend to follow what the experts suggest looks best.

“This is our third year of Flex,” Darrel says. “You still have to be timely with applications. If you let weeds get very big, then you will have them all season long.”

“We are starting to see more tolerance to herbicides in some weeds,” Sherri says. “For example, water hemp. It has always been hard to kill, but it is getting even more tolerant. The plant is just so spindly with very little leaf surface for the herbicide to land on.”

Eradication Program Essential

Another program they had to embrace was boll weevil eradication. Gamble says many producers in his area were skeptical about the program because of the costs, but he says now that it has been a great thing.

“We would not have very many folks in cotton farming any more,” Darrel says. “It was money well spent.”

Darrel says 1995 was a bad year for boll weevils.

“We sprayed all summer long and couldn’t get ahead of them,” he says. “That first year with the traps, we would dump out 200 to 300 weevils. We had a lot of cotton acreage that year and a mild winter before it.

“They just got a good buildup. But I’m a believer now.”

Wind Power Looks Promising

With a continuous wind blowing across western Oklahoma, it’s not surprising that windmills have started to pop up across the land.

“They talk about it being the next big thing in electrical generation and that, in the next 20 years, western Oklahoma and the Texas panhandle will become the big area for wind-powered electrical generation.”

Darrel says his dad has 1,100 acres of the family farm signed up with the power company, studying their land and others on the feasibility of putting up windmills for electrical generation.

“We hope that comes through,” he says. “It might ease our farming worries some.”

For now, Darrel and Sherri Gamble will continue to work their land to produce the best cotton they can, together. They have seen progress from where they’ve been and can even set goals for the future.

“Thirty years ago, if you were making a half a bale of cotton per acre off of this land, you were doing good,” Darrel says.

“Now you are pushing three bales to the acre, and I’ve heard of as high as four bales. We’ve been wanting to make that four-bale mark, but we haven’t done it yet. It’s something we can shoot for.”

Amanda Huber is Southeast Editor of Cotton Farming and resides in Bronson, Fla. Contact her at (352) 486-7006 or ahuber@onegrower.com.


Technology To Farm Better

Not afraid to try new things and knowing they would not be producing cotton without technologies they have implemented over time, Darrel Gamble is a firm believer.

“Technology is one of the best things I see coming,” he says. “If you don’t change what you’re doing, you’ll lose ground. Some people may say, ‘technology is no good,’ but that’s wrong. There may be some things that don’t fit into your program, but there’s some good technology out there. You’ve got to decide what will work for you. If you ignore it, you’ll get behind.”

Darrel explains, “A few years ago, we got a new tractor with an AutoSteer system, and Sherri said, ‘We don’t really need that.’ Well, the first day she was out using it, we came in at the end of that day and she said, ‘I was wrong.’ And I said, ‘You were wrong about what?’ And she said, ‘That autoguidance is really nice.’”

“Used to, when you were running the cotton stripper, you couldn’t even take a drink of water and take your eyes off the row that few seconds,” Sherri says. “After we got the AutoSteer tractor, one day a friend brought a pizza out here for lunch, and I got a slice and got back on the stripper and actually ran it while eating my pizza.”

“I’ve never been so impressed with something in my life,” Darrel adds. “Everything runs smoother and you get more done, especially with no-till. It also really helps with the sprayer, and we plant using AutoSteer, too. Now it’s standard technology.”

“That’s what I’ve always admired about Darrel and his farming practices,” Sherri says. “There are some people who are so set in the old ways that they are not open to suggestions. We’ve been adventuresome in trying new things and some of them have worked and some haven’t but most generally have worked for us.

“Technology makes farming better and makes you look like a better farmer,” Darrel says.
 


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