West Texas farmers don't need much of a reason to park their sand fighters, but before they do, they have to initiate some cropping systems that hold soil even during a legendary southwestern dust storm.

Conservation tillage offers hope.

Texas A&M Agronomist Todd Baughman said cover crops and conservation tillage could play key roles for cotton farmers working the sandy soils of the Texas Rolling Plains.

Baughman, who works from the Extension and Research Center at Vernon, told participants in the 6th Annual Cotton and Rice Conservation Tillage conference held recently in Houston that wind damage from blowing sand destroys countless acres of cotton every year.

“Farmers are beginning to plant cover crops to help reduce this loss. But we have two concerns with cover crops. Until recently we had no post-emergence weed control options. And often farmers wait too late to terminate the cover crop and take needed moisture from cotton.”

Herbicide tolerant cotton varieties and new mechanical technology make weed control considerably easier. And Baughman has been looking at trials in the Rolling and High Plains to evaluate cover crop planting pattern, species, and termination date.

He has evaluated cotton yield under various row patterns, crop species and termination dates.

“Rye appeared to perform better as a cover crop at Chillicothe in all years and in 2000 at Lubbock. Wheat and rye performed equally well at Lubbock in 2001 and 2002. It also appeared that terminating the crop at 50 percent heading rather than at the boot stage provided better protection for the cotton crop.”

He found no differences in cotton lint yield between wheat or rye or termination dates (boot or 50 percent heading stage) at either location. He said planting patterns seem to favor every-row for best wind protection. “And we found no yield advantage by spacing the rows farther apart.”

Baughman said winter weeds, especially prickly lettuce, became troublesome in the second year. “We may need to add a pint of 2,4-D to Roundup to take out problem weeds,” he said.

He said maintaining a traffic pattern improves yield potential. “We ripped some land three years in a row, so there should be no hardpan. But it's a slow operation and takes a lot of horsepower.”

Baughman said planting a cover crop and terminating it on time could save a lot of soil. “It helps eliminate a lot of trips across the fields sand fighting,” he said.

Mike McGuire, a Rolling Plains farmer from Haskell, said his sand fighter has “sat in the same spot for 15 years.”

McGuire switched to reduced tillage about 10 years ago and has not run a plow through his irrigated cotton land for more than five years. He insists that the key to success with conservation tillage is flexibility.

“We can't be prepared for everything,” he said.

He said adapting equipment to fit specific needs makes more sense than replacing sometimes-expensive machinery. “We can often adjust equipment on hand to do the same job as the latest innovations,” he said.

He uses a 64-foot sprayer to apply herbicides. “I have very little money in it and it does an excellent job.

McGuire raises a lot of wheat, up to 1,000 acres, irrigated and dryland. He produces 100 acres each of irrigated cotton and peanuts.

“Conservation tillage makes sense,” McGuire said. “Some of my neighbors make as many as 15 trips across their fields just to prepare for planting.”

He uses a double-crop system and plants cotton, usually around May 10, in standing wheat. “The wheat crop takes care of the overhead for cotton up to defoliation.”

He applies Roundup under the canopy in-season to control tough weeds, such as morningglory. “I set the nozzles about boot-top high. That works well in West Texas and it's cheap,” he said.

“I can also use a layby treatment and run nozzles straight down instead of with an elbow.”

“I don't always follow a strict no-till system,” he says. “Sometimes I may use a little tillage.”

He maintains flexibility with crop selection as well. “I'm looking at a lot of different options.”

He intends to replace some wheat with guar this year. “I'll put half a circle in cotton and guar under the other half. Last year was the first time I had planted peanuts but I'll plant 100 acres of no-till narrow-row peanuts in wheat cover.”

rsmith@primediabusiness.com