Reduced tillage could well be the watchword for this year's High Cotton Awards. Three of this year's four winners plant their crops minimum-till while the fourth farms more in keeping with traditional tillage practices in California.

None of the three winners for the Delta, Southeast or Southwest regions are farming no-till in the strictest sense of the word, but all have drastically reduced the amount of plowing compared to what they did a few years ago.

“We try to disturb the soil as little as possible,” says Bruce Bond, this year's High Cotton winner for the Mid-South. “We do a lot of work in the fall when we can. We come in behind ripper/hippers with a do-all and a planter. My fields haven't had a disk in them in 10 or 12 years, except to smooth up the ruts or disk down to land plane.”

It's that kind of attention to protecting the soil and water and other environmental concerns that helped Bond and three other farmers earn the 2005 High Cotton Awards. This year's winners include:

Shep Morris, Shorter, Ala.; Southeast states;

Bruce Bond, Portland, Ark., Mid-South states;

Mike Tyler, Lamesa, Texas, Southwest states.

Mike Cox, Brawley, Calif., Far West states.

The recipients of this year's awards, which are sponsored by Farm Press Publications through a grant to The Cotton Foundation, will be honored at the Beltwide Cotton Conferences in New Orleans.

Co-sponsors of this year's awards are Delta and Pine Land Co., Emergent Genetics, Inc., Helena Chemical Co., John Deere Co., Syngenta Crop Protection, U.S. Borax Inc., and Valor Herbicide and Valent U.S.A.

“This year's winners represent the best of the environmental ethic displayed by so many of our farmers,” says Greg Frey, publisher of the four Farm Press Publications. “We are proud to be participating in the honoring of these growers in partnership with The Cotton Foundation.”

Shep Morris, this year's Southeast winner, was the first producer in his area to use minimum tillage and cover crops over his entire farm, and one of the first to apply chicken litter as fertilizer.

Morris has worked for years to develop a dryland, minimum tillage system that works for his farming operation, which is spread out over 40 miles and several different soil types in Macon and Montgomery counties in eastern Alabama. He's also been increasing the numbers of acres in his cotton-corn rotation.

“We're not quite at a 50/50 corn-cotton rotation, but that's what we're working towards,” he says. “Corn pulls phosphorus from the soil while cotton pulls potassium. Grain contributes nitrogen and phosphorus while the stalks leave 0.5 percent potash and 1 percent nitrogen, which is what the cotton needs. By bedding the corn stubble, nitrogen and potash are built up for the cotton.”

Morris also plants rye as a cover crop over all of his acreage to help the soil in place through the winter. “Before we began planting no-till, we were planting rye and vetch together. The growth was getting away from us, so we changed to wheat and learned to do a better job of managing it. We went back to rye because it grows better in cool weather and it gives us nematode suppression.”

Morris is in the early stages of using precision technology on his farm. “We have a yield monitor on our combine and cotton picker. We've been using this technology for three years, and I'm beginning to see some promise.”

He's also making use of a nutrient that is increasing in supply in the Southeast — poultry litter. “We've been putting out poultry litter for about three our four years. We put it out in the fall, bedding it up ahead of cotton. Then, we come back and put it out on corn in the spring to better utilize the nitrogen. It's great for supplying phosphorus and potash.

Bruce Bond, the Mid-South High Cotton winner, uses some form of minimum tillage on 100 percent of his operation.

Bond “flirted with no-till for several years. I'm disappointed in myself that I haven't gone to no-till. But we certainly are making a lot fewer trips than we used to.” He also cultivates “only where we furrow-irrigate, and the rest of the time, we run the row hoods. That saves 4,000 to 5,000 gallons of diesel.”

He employs a tailwater recovery system, which directs water to a large canal used as a reservoir to irrigate an additional 120 acres of cotton. He also worked with landowners from Portland Gin Co. on an extensive network of underground pipe to reduce water use and deliver water to fields more efficiently than surface lines.

Bond is very selective in pesticides used on the farm. “I always want to be safe. I don't like for me or my guys to handle harsh chemicals. I work with them every day. I'm not a turnrow farmer. I drive a tractor or a picker, too.”

Mike Tyler, the Southwest High Cotton winner, believes in eliminating as much tillage as possible, using a cover crop to protect soil from wind and water erosion, applying irrigation water as efficiently as possible and making the highest yield of the best quality cotton he can grow.

Tyler, who farms in several counties near Lamesa and Seminole, is no stranger to reduced tillage systems. He began cutting back on cultivation before the advent of Roundup Ready cotton varieties.

“But herbicide resistant technology certainly has made it easier,” he says. He uses both Roundup Ready and Liberty Link cotton varieties and never puts a plow in irrigated fields after planting, “unless we have some kind of chemical breakdown or something else goes amiss. I have a John Deere minimum till cultivator that I now only use to build beds.

“Minimum tillage is my preferred way to plant,” Tyler says. “Old crop stubble stays in place most of the year, so I don't see soil washing out of my fields with hard rains. I preserve a lot of soil with reduced tillage.”

He's also been frugal with water resources. He says one large field, about 400 acres, typically made two-bale cotton. He divided the field in half, left one half out of production and in wheat stubble and planted cotton on the other half.

“I'm making four bales per acre and using less water. I get higher production and that may be a factor in being able to farm that land, with limited water, for another 10 years.”

Tyler says cutting back to half a circle also gives him leeway to take advantage of technology. He says he can afford the investment on potential four-bale cotton but could not justify the expense with just two bales per acre.

Finding dry weather for tillage is normally not a problem in the arid West, so Mike Cox, this year's Far West High Cotton winner, focuses on other issues that tend to complicate life on his farming operation in the Imperial Valley of California.

Veteran cotton producers like Mike's father, Don, 77, say the Imperial Valley used to be the best place to grow cotton; that is, before several groups of ravenous insects such as pink bollworms, silverleaf whiteflies and lygus moved in.”

Cotton growing was relatively simple for several decades after Don Cox grew his first crop. It is a considerably more formidable challenge today. Proof of that is in the fact that in the mid-1970s more than 120,000 acres were produced in the desert valley. In 2004 there were only 8,600 acres produced. Costs have driven down the acreage with the biggest bill being the one to control insect pests.

Mike does not know his final 2004 yields because it has been an uncharacteristic wet fall. He has picked enough to figure he has made his 4.5 to 5-bale target. For the previous four seasons he has averaged 5.38 bales in 2000; 4.7 bales in 2001; the 5.44 in 2002, but dropped off to 2.84 bales in 2003.

Cox has switched to planting two cotton rows on a 40-inch bed, copying a technique developed by another High Cotton Award winner, Daniel Burns of Dos Palos, Calif., in the San Joaquin Valley of California.

“Daniel has double rows on 30-inch beds. I tried that, but I could not control the irrigation water on half-mile runs,” he said. He first tried double row 40s five years ago, and this year all his cotton is on twin rows on 40-inch beds.

“We can still grow tremendous cotton in the Imperial Valley,” said Mike Cox. “It is just more challenging than it has probably ever been, but we have been able to meet those challenges so far.”

e-mail: flaws@primediabusiness.com