On a warm, cloudless, day last October, Coley Bailey Sr. opened the door of the tractor driven by his son, Coley Jr. and over the radio chatter and whine of machinery, announced, “We’re processing 1,100 pounds of seed cotton a minute.”

Heads nodded. Smiles went up all around. Then it was back to the field for Coley, Jr.; his boll buggy was needed just around the tree line.

Efficiency is such an overused word in agriculture these days, one hesitates to use it to describe Coffeeville, Miss., farmer Coley Bailey Jr. winner of the Farm Press/Cotton Foundation High Cotton Award for the Mid-South states.

So, let’s just say he choreographs the entire picking operation from start to finish.

A one-minute or less picker dump while still on the row is considered a worthy accomplishment. Splitting a boll buggy load between two modules, on the other hand, constitutes a serious lack of forethought. A wasteful wait for the picker driver is the ultimate no-no.

But, tarping 24 modules a day with three pickers, three boll buggies and two builders — well, that’s moving some cotton!

A slogan coined by Coley, Sr., and repeated as frequently as needed, sums up not only their picking operation, but the philosophy that guides all operations on their farm, from the day cotton is planted until the stalk cutter buttons up the harvest: “We want to keep making those cotton pickers turn around.”

The Baileys farm 3,350 acres of cotton in Yalobusha and Grenada Counties. One of the farms, 900 acres just north of Grenada, was once owned by James K. Polk, the 11th president of the United States and has been farmed for over 170 years.

Mostly dryland cotton producers, they work hard to insure that no water on the farm goes to waste. They accomplish this with no-till, a wheat cover crop and various conservation projects.

Coley Jr. discovered the benefits of a wheat cover crop quite by accident. In 1998, he had just converted his cropland to no-till. Only a few years into farming on his own, he had rowed up 100 acres of highly erodible land and was out of compliance. A Natural Resources Conservation Service representative told him if he planted a cover crop on the land, he could get back in compliance.

He planted wheat on the field, but that spring, after he’d killed the wheat and started planting cotton, he thought he had made a big mistake.

“We couldn’t see the row because of the wheat stubble,” he says. “But, five days later that cotton was up, and in two weeks it looked better than the rest of my cotton. At harvest, the cotton where that had been wheat cover picked 1,100 pounds and the cotton right next to it picked 950 pounds.”

Since then, Coley Jr., has found there are other benefits from the wheat that’s now planted as a cover crop on all his cotton ground.

“We have a lot more water-holding capacity. Earthworms leave tunnels in the ground, and when the wheat roots decay after we spray Roundup, all those channels seem to hold water. A lot of times, after a two-inch rain, hardly any water will run off the field. Organic matter, with no-till and a wheat cover crop, has gone from .445 percent to over 3 percent.”

The Baileys usually do about five EQIP projects a year using the farm’s excavator and bulldozer.

“We farm up and down creeks, and slowing water going into creeks is what we’re trying to do,” Coley Jr. says. “If we don’t do that, before long it will wash out, and the ditch will be as deep as the creek.

“A lot of what we’re doing now is maintaining or replacing existing structures that were originally put in with shovels. We get the soil and water guys to come in and design it, and hopefully we’ll get an EQIP project. Our landlords really appreciate that we keep their land looking good.”

Another big benefit, he says, is that wheat shades out a lot of weeds. “We have a lot less marestail, and we’ve been fortunate not to see pigweed yet.”

Still, the Baileys aren’t taking any chances with resistant weeds.

“We try to change up chemistries,” Coley Jr. says. “In February, we apply 2,4-D, then in early April, Roundup and dicamba. When we plant, we apply Ignite and get everything cleaned up. So, there are three different chemistries before cotton emerges.

“With the first shot of Roundup over-the-top of cotton, we will add Staple to get a little more residual. With the second shot, we’ll use metolachlor. That carried us through the whole season this year, although we did some chopping this year for some marestail that came through.”

The Baileys plant with two 12-row John Deere no-till planters; 2011 was the first year they used an RTK guidance system for planting.

“The RTK puts us right where we’re supposed to be,” Coley Jr. says. “My planter drivers like it a whole lot better.”

They plant all Deltapine cottons, including DP 1050B2RF and DP 1137B2RF on most of their dryland, and DP 0912B2RF on 300 acres of irrigated ground.

“We’ve always had good luck with Deltapine varieties and good service,” Coley Jr., says. “We grow 10 varieties for them in a variety trial, which lets me get a firsthand look at what’s coming along.”