A rye cover crop and controlled traffic provide the framework for Doc and Danny Davis' Elk, City, Oklahoma, no-till cotton operation.
The process starts before cotton harvest.
They seed rye into the middles of standing cotton, using a Tye drill, modified with shields to protect the bolls.
"Ideally, we like to seed the rye 45 to 60 days before we harvest cotton," Danny says. "We're usually through by late August."
Prolonged drought delayed seeding this year until after harvest, however.
In late winter they scout for winter weeds and treat with 2,4-D, Banvel or a phenoxy-type herbicide, as necessary. "We may fertilize the rye if we need to," Danny says, "but that's not a general rule."
They run a stalk cutter through the old cotton toward the end of March, "after the threat of blowing snow is past," Doc says.
They terminate rye in April. "The date depends on moisture and amount of growth on rye," says Danny. "If moisture is limited, we may kill the rye a little earlier to preserve moisture for the cotton."
"We run a bedworker over the old cotton row," Doc says, "to prepare a narrow seedbed."
The bedworker is an implement Danny has adapted over the years, combining several operations into one pass to prepare a narrow seedbed over the old cotton row.
" This year it was so dry, we did a little of our land preparation earlier than usual, before we killed the cover crop," Danny says. "The bed worker and cover crop termination chores may flip flop, some years, depending on height of the rye."
When the soil warms enough to germinate cottonseed, they plant with a modified John Deere planter, in 40-inch rows. They prefer to plant into moisture, following a rain and after the soil surfaces has dried.
"We take care of weeds with an over-the-top application of Roundup on Roundup Ready varieties, before the four-leaf stage," Danny says.
"And we apply Roundup post-directed with a Redball hooded sprayer as necessary, usually by late June or early July. We mix ammonium sulfate with the Roundup but add no other herbicides to the mix.
"We occasionally use Prowl, but that would go on with the bed-worker."
Doc says before Roundup Ready cotton was available, the hooded sprayer was even more important to season-long weed control.
They always maintain the same traffic pattern in each field. "When we first plant, we ro-till under the row, hip up a small bed and establish a 6-row pattern of 40-inch rows. We stay with that pattern with everything else we do. The following years, we'll still follow that pattern."
Controlled traffic, they say, prevents hardpans and allows roots to penetrate deeply into the soil. Fields soak up moisture better, too.
Doc and Danny prefer rye to wheat or other cover crops. "It reaches desired height faster than wheat," Danny says. "And rye has a root system ten times more aggressive than wheat. That deep root penetration provides a network to move nutrients and moisture into the soil.
"We've documented that with soil tests. Subsoil samples show a low nitrate level, now 8 or 10 units compared to 20 to 30 before. Cotton or a cover crop growing all the time prevents leaching of leftover nutrients. Also, we apply nitrogen to produce the cover crop and that contributes to organic matter in the soil."
They usually fertilize for the cotton crop before they run the bed worker.
"We surface apply fertilizer, which may raise some eyebrows," Danny days. "But with cover crops, we do no deep breaking, banding or side-by-side banding. If we had no cover, we'd fertilize differently."
Danny says they allow some nitrogen for the cover crop when they fertilize cotton. Doc says some farmers are concerned that no-till will increase potential for cotton diseases because of the residue left on the ground.
"That has not been a factor," he says. "In fact, we probably have less disease pressure than we did with conventional. Sand injury will encourage thrips damage, which opens plants to disease infection. And microbial activity we get from increased organic matter helps improve root health.
"We also use an in-furrow insecticide, Thimet," Doc says. "It's one of those inexpensive insurance policies that pays off."
"We had to spray a little for thrips two or three years ago," Danny says. "That's the only time we've sprayed in years."
They say the in-furrow treatment costs from $5 to $6 per acre and puts an extra pounds of lint in the trailer. "It's not hard to pay for the insecticide with the added yield," Doc says.
"We make more first position bolls because of the in-furrow treatment," Danny says.
Boll Weevil Eradication also has increased yield and cut costs. "We're going into our third diapause treatment this fall," Danny says. "We can definitely tell a difference," adds Doc.
They use Paymaster varieties: 2326 stacked gene and 2280. "We use 2326 Roundup Ready for our refuge crop," Danny says.