Virginia growers fine-tune strip-till cotton production

Ray Davis switched the majority of his farm to strip-till to stop the wind from blowing away the sandy soils and reduce trips across the field. Five years later, he lists better time management among the benefits he's gained while learning a new system and adapting to situations as they arise.

Davis grows 1,000 acres of cotton near Courtland, Va., with his father, Raymond and his brother, Jeff. They plant Roundup Ready and stacked-gene varieties with the Bollgard gene. They rotate cotton with peanuts.

The Davis family says a wheat cover, planted in the fall, is the right choice for keeping the soil in their sandy fields. On medium and heavier soils, a cover crop isn't necessary.

They spray the cover crop two weeks before planting - when the wheat is about 12 inches high - with a pint of Roundup Ultra and 1.5 pints of Prowl. The application kills the wheat and winter annuals and prevents winter weeds from germinating. "If you kill the cover crop too quickly, it won't be there when you need it," Ray told a large gathering of farmers at the Southeast Cotton Conference held Jan. 23 in Raleigh.

At the two- leaf stage, they come back with more Roundup to clean up any remaining weeds. Before they could get over their cotton with the first spray last year, however, the cotton was at the four to five-leaf stage because of frequent rains. In fields with a history of crabgrass last season, they used 10 ounces of Dual Magnum under the hood. A second application of Roundup Ultra at 1.5 pints was also made. Where cockleburs came through, they used Cy-Pro or Caparol.

Everything is done in one pass - herbicide treatments and planting.

Post-emergence applications are done with a Spray Coupe. The Davises use a KMC unit outfitted with a fluted coulter in front of the shank and two fluted coulters behind the shank with a single basket. "When we first started, we did it in two passes, but we didn't stay on top of the row like we needed and weren't happy with the planting results we were getting," Ray says. They tie the strip-till rig to a set of 7300 Series John Deere planters. On heavier soils, they use a conventional ripper and bedder.

Ray believes strip-till lends itself to adapting to the different growing situation each season presents. For example, take last season. The Davises decided to switch to the hill-drop method of planting because of problems with seed-to-soil coverage. At planting, however, they faced another obstacle: A dry spring. "We started running out of moisture," Ray says. On the advice of Johnny Parker, cotton agronomist with Commonwealth Gin in Wakefield, Va., the Davises inched their planting depth down as much as an inch and a half, in search of moisture for the seeds. Planting at a depth of an inch and a half isn't standard practice, but it worked well last year. "We'll only do that if the situation calls for it," Ray says.

They are still experimenting with hill drop, after trying four seeds per hill, then dropping back to three per hill, spaced 12 inches apart. This season, they intend on trying two seeds per hill and comparing the results with three seeds per hill. "We're trying to cut down on seed costs since we're planting Bt and Roundup Ready cotton," Ray says. "The tech fees will eat you up after a while."

Strip-till also paid off when frequent showers kept most farmers out of the field at a critical time for herbicide application. Instead of waiting for the fields to dry out, they were able to adapt to the situation by mounting dual wheels on their Spray Coupe and cutting their herbicide load in half, from 300 gallons to 150 gallons.

The rains also did a number on nitrogen levels in the fields. While scouting the fields, Ray noticed yellow leaves dropping off the bottom of the plants. After contacting his county agent and talking with others, they determined the cotton was suffering from nitrogen deficiency, just as the crop was getting into the first week of bloom. "We went over-the-top with a foliar application of 14-0-0 and also 20 percent granular nitrogen. The 14-0-0 seemed to do better than the 20 percent."

The tillage practice also is working well with their choice of stacked-gene varieties. "We didn't find any bollworm damage in the Bt cotton," Ray says. "The non-Bt cotton had quite a few hits." Even though Virginia is not noted for problems with insects, Ray believes bollworm damage is occurring at below-threshold levels. "We feel like we have an advantage with the Bt cotton because I can't always get to every field and scout it like I need to." The main difference was the 50-pound to 100-pound difference he saw in the yields from the Bt cotton.

"Strip-till is the way to go for us," Ray says.

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