Strip-till fuels cotton yields

The well-placed use of white does wonders for the balance of a picture. The well-placed white blowing into a picker at harvest does wonders for how a farmer feels in the fall. But it's the other colors that make the white stand out. David Walton sees the subtle, yet important, changes in the soil that make the white possible.

The Lumber Bridge, N.C., farmer is painting a more profitable picture these days using a combination of tillage practices and variety selection on 3,000 acres of cotton. Walton's palette began to change about five years ago when he made the move to strip-till. A couple of years ago, he hit on a combination of varieties that provides the white he's been missing for a number of years.

When Walton began the move to strip-till five years ago, he had outgrown his better land. It always seemed at planting time, he was in a bind — planting corn and bedding cotton fell around the same time of the year. So, he talked it over with Earl Hendrix, a neighboring farmer in the next county, and even got on the phone with Lamar Black, a noted farmer in Georgia who practices conservation-tillage.

“I took about a third of the land and used check plots,” Walton says. “I was still listening to what I was hearing. I bedded half the field and strip-tilled the other half. In a drought, the strip-till kept growing while the bedded cotton didn't.”

In an effort to adapt the practice to his situation, Walton sees his use of strip-till evolving. “I hope I can bed the cotton land behind the strip-till. I've lost more cotton stands because of water and 40-degree nights right after planting. I've replanted more acres since I began strip-tilling.”

Walton believes he'll need only about a 6-inch bed to keep the seed from going under water. He's contacted KMC and the Georgia-based company is working on a strip-till implement that would bed the land behind the rolling basket. “That's the last step.”

While tillage plays a big part in the process, the cover crop is a challenge, Walton says.

First off, it's always a challenge to get the rye cover crop in the ground in November or December. Although he currently drills in the cover crop, Walton may begin broadcasting the rye with a spreader and a rotary harrow at about 10 mph. He's experimented planting rye at a bushel and a bushel and a half per acre. He's found that too thick of a cover crop can hurt the growth of the cotton.

When the rye is at the bloom stage, he rolls it down with an implement that works as much like a road construction implement as it does a farm implement. He got the idea from Lamar Black, a fellow farmer in Georgia. “I built the three rollers on an old bar,” Walton says. “If I had it to do over again, I'd make it lighter. It's been a learning experience.”

The results of strip-till, however, didn't require much of a learning curve. “After the first year, I saw my expenses drop dramatically,” Walton says. “When I went whole hog, my expenses went down by about $25 per acre. I was looking at the books one winter and said, ‘Hey, this is something I want to do.’

“You still spend about the same amount of money, but the savings are elsewhere, specifically fuel and labor”, Walton says.

“I didn't know how much damage the disking was doing,” he says. In the midst of changing to strip-till, he inadvertently sat a disk down in the field. Walton observed that the cotton on the spot where the disk rested didn't grow as well as the strip-tilled cotton.

“I don't like to disk,” Walton now says.

Much like his views on tillage, Walton's thoughts on varieties continue to evolve.

Two years ago, during one of the worst droughts on record, Walton planted Delta and Pine Land 555. “It grew hard and I was scared,” he remembers. “But it out-picked everything I had. It stands the stress better than other varieties, I believe.”

“Triple Nickel's” growth habit has been a concern to growers. Walton uses Pix pretty aggressively on the variety to slow it down. Even with the aggressive growth pattern, DP 555 picked about 980 pounds per acre, Walton says.

“It's the first time that I've picked decent cotton in a long time,” Walton says. “This is the way it used to be.”

In his opinion, varieties over the past decade lost their punch when a second Bt gene was added to the transgenic varieties. “We lost the genetics up until now. I think the varieties that are coming down the line will have the good genetics that lead to high yields. A lot of my neighbors will tell you the same thing.”

He also plants Stoneville 5599, DP&L 44 and FiberMax 991 RR.

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