OPTIMISM WAS not high when Doc and Danny Davis planted the 2000 cotton crop.

"We've never been less optimistic about a crop than this year," says Danny. "We had virtually no subsoil moisture. To make anything at all with what we started with is a miracle."

"We planted a good week earlier than usual," adds Doc. "We could not have planted conventionally, but we got a little moisture in early May, the soil was warm enough and we started planting cotton."

That early start plus years of conservation tillage paid off for the Elk City, Okla., father/son team, the Southwest Farm Press High Cotton Award winners for 2001.

Neither Doc nor Danny will argue that the 2000 crop was one of their best, but both agree that under the circumstances "it was pretty good for dryland cotton."

Some fields made nearly a bale per acre; most produced at least a half-bale per acre and early grades were exceptionally good. Not bad considering the crop received no rain after June 28.

"We had some staple and some micronaire problems later into harvest," Danny says. "But that was the result of too little water."

"No-till saved what little moisture we had on our 1,387 acres," says Doc.

"I was afraid this would be the year that growing a cover crop would spank us," says Danny. "But we planted early and got the crop up with a little bit of May moisture. When cotton was two to three weeks old, we got a little rain on it. We set bolls early. It all goes back to no-till and having straw in and on the soil to hold moisture."

Conservation is a long-standing tradition on this farm, which stretches back to Doc's grandparents, who started the farm by filing for acreage.

"My dad was a good steward of the soil," Doc says. "He built shelter belts (wind breaks) and terraces, but he did not want to see a weed in his fields. He was an advocate of conservation before most folks.

The tradition continued with Doc.

"I love to take a piece of land that I've watched for 20 years and see what I can do with it," he says. "Sometimes it takes five years or more to bring it back." The first thing he'd do is retire the cultivator.

Doc and Danny, who have been farming together for the best part of three decades, began experimenting with reduced tillage systems in 1979.

"That first no-till experiment, milo behind grazed-out wheat, was a 100 percent failure," Danny says. "We had some pH problems."

"But we learned from it," says Doc. "We had good chemical company representatives who helped us find what the trouble was. And we got straw on the ground and the land didn't blow. We also discovered that certain herbicides are tough on milo."

They tried no-till strips, two quarter sections with 90 foot crop and 30 foot conservation strips. "This was during the set-aside program," Doc says, "and we used strips as our layout acreage.

"We also had hundreds of outside rows and lots of weeds. But it didn't blow."

In 1981 they tried ro-till, double-cropped wheat and mung beans. Then they moved into cotton.

"We saw some advantages right off," says Danny. "But we had challenges, especially with equipment."

They say Leo and Jarrell Harden, Alabama farmers who invented a conservation-tillage rig, were extremely helpful.

"Leo came out and helped us set the machine up," says Doc.

"At first, no-till was like having a new horse," says Danny. "It wasn't broke yet, and we got throwed a lot. But we knew we could ride it. We new no-till would work."

Doc says a lot of industry folk helped teach them how to refine the process. "John Bradley, (formerly a researcher with the University of Tennessee, now a Monsanto no-till specialist) is a real conservationist," Doc says. "He taught us a lot."

He mentions Albert Trouse, a Bush-Hog sales rep and Walter Reich as other influences. Trouse was selling no-till way ahead of his time. And Reich could talk about the process for hours."

"He had a lot of common sense and offered a lot of little bitty tips that paid off," Danny says.

Cooperation from these and other specialists "helped make the system work for us," Doc says.

Over the past 20 years, Doc and Danny have refined the system, adapting equipment, building machines and casting some aside as they fine-tuned the process.

"As we've learned more and more about no-till, we've become more convinced that it's the best system for us," Danny says. "After this year, we're more certain than ever. Our need for steel has disappeared."

They say their initial reasoning for testing no-till was to stop erosion. They had seen too much soil wash or blow away and had seen too many plants cut to shreds by wind-swept sand.

They've discovered other advantages along the way. Danny explains.

"It saves soil. It saves water. It saves money. And I can have a life and spend time with my family.

"With no-till, after we do a little bed preparation in the spring, spray the cover crop and plant, we're done. We don't have to fight sand or cultivate two or three times."

"We know we save money on fuel, labor and equipment," says Doc. "We know it's dollars and cents cheaper. But if farmers haven't tried the system, they see mostly the added chemical costs."

"My budgets are conservative, but, just on yearly inputs, we produce no-till cotton about $10 per acre cheaper than we could conventional," Danny says. "We know it saves money."

Doc says making fewer trips across the fields saves on major equipment repair costs, a huge savings. "We have an `89 model tractor with less than 4,000 hours on it," Doc says.

Doc and Danny keep tweaking the system but have it pretty close to where they want it. (See accompanying article on specifics.)

"I'd like an air seeder to plant the cover crop," Danny says. They're currently using a 1973 John Deere planter they've modified for 40-inch rows.

Danny says the air seeder would blow seed under the sweeps. "That's not a lot different than we're doing now. I'd also like to try underground drip irrigation. All our cotton is dryland and we've been hit hard the past two or three years with drought."

Drought is a constant concern. Danny says one of the fears first-time or potential no-till cotton farmers express is that a cover crop will use up all available soil moisture, leaving cotton vulnerable to drought.

"Organic matter builds up from years of cover crops and helps the soil hold water," Danny says. "I don't think we pull any more moisture out of the soil with a cover crop than we would if we did early primary tillage. If a farmer has to fight sand, each cultivation adds up and takes more moisture from the soil.

"Still, I can't say that a cover crop doesn't remove moisture."

He says determining when to terminate the crop is a key.

"We saw benefits from the start," Danny says. "We limited runoff, for one thing. If we get a big rain, we still might lose some water, but with the next rain the soil will hold more water."

Traffic control, they say, is crucial to the system. They established a traffic pattern years ago, based on 40-inch rows, and everything they do - planting, spraying, harvesting and pulling the boll buggy to the module builder - follows those same traffic patterns.

"We don't create hardpans with heavy equipment," Doc says.

"As nasty as this year was, we can still walk across the fields and feel a little cushion under our feet," Danny says. "Even a non-farmer said he could feel the difference through his boots."

Doc says the experiment that began more than 20 years ago has paid off for the Davis farm. Yields have improved, even in drought years. Grades are better; costs have come down and they're saving soil.

Recent innovations such as Roundup Ready cotton, Boll Weevil Eradication and hooded sprayers have made the system more efficient and more economical. But neither Doc nor Danny got into conservation tillage for the economics.

"That's a bonus," Doc says. "So are the wonderful people we've met over the years as we hosted folks on the farm and visited other areas. It's been a lot of fun."

"We just wanted to save the soil" Danny says.