Lanny Bennett figured advantages he found in narrow row grain production (corn and milo) ought to work in cotton as well.

It does, but first he had to design a harvester that would accommodate 20-inch cotton rows without sacrificing either yield or quality. He bought several used stripper row units, tore them apart and made a five row, brush roll harvester for 20-inch rows.

“It's doing a good job,” Bennett says, “and I have seen no detrimental effects from stripping 20-inch row spacings.”

Bennett, who farms near Plainview, Texas, says 10 years of experience with narrow-row grain proved that narrow rows could produce higher yields with more efficient water use. “I found a significant yield advantage with 20-inch rows in corn compared to my 40-inch rows,” he says.

He started working with narrow row cotton in 2000. “I liked it but had to get a more efficient harvester,” he says. “Finger headers available at the time were not doing the job I needed for how I manage cotton.”

He tried a finger header for the first time in 2000. “The fields were uneven and the header was not conducive to varying plant heights.” That's when he went to the shop and designed and built what he needed.

The result is a harvester that efficiently strips cotton plants up to 36 inches. “It worked well in all conditions,” Bennett says.

He likes the simplicity of narrow-row crop production. “If we get good over-the-top weed control, we make fewer trips across the field than we would with wider rows,” he says. “Irrigated fields form a quick canopy that helps shade out weeds. But weed pressure varies from farm to farm.”

Yield is “what hooked me,” he says. “I made the best cotton I ever made on 20-inch rows. I don't say that conventional rows would not have made as good a crop but narrow rows gave me my best yield.”

He says narrow row cotton uses water more efficiently. “We try to manage irrigation practices to set fruiting positions instead of growing stalks.”

He uses LEPA pivot irrigation. “We need to spray underneath the canopy.”

Higher population

Bennett bumps plant populations by 20 percent in narrow row cotton. “I would plant about 65,000 seeds in 40-inch rows and increase to 80,000 in 20-inch rows if I have enough water.”

Jeff Harrell, a neighbor, also switched to narrow rows and likes the practice. “I may try some on drip irrigation next year,” Harrell says. “It worked well under pivots.”

He's also seen a significant yield advantage.

They both say growth regulators may be important in some fields but need varies, depending on soil and water.

“In some fields I used three times more growth regulator and in some I used one-fourth as much,” Bennett says.

“I didn't use any more Pix than normal,” Harrell says. “I did in 2005 but we had more rain. The best yield did not have any growth regulator.”

Harrell says narrow-row cotton matures about two weeks earlier than wider spaced cotton.

Labor and equipment costs are less, they say. “We plant and then the next thing we have to do is spray,” Harrell says. “We're not tilling and usually need just two trips with a spray boom. It's simple.”

Bennett says FM 958 was his best variety in 2006 but 9060 Flex also did well.

He says farmers who want to try narrow-row cotton should start with a planter. He uses a 24-row Kinsey 20-inch planter. “I do a lot of custom work with it for corn and milo growers,” he says. “And I maintain a 50/50 rotation with grain and cotton.”

Lanny's father Randy also plants narrow-row. He and Lanny use similar weed control but Randy plants in grazed-over wheat. “I use a yellow herbicide, Prowl or Treflan, and add Dual or Direx at planting,” he says. “I plant some Liberty Link cotton and make one application of Ignite when the cotton is small, six to eight inches. That does a good job for my farming practices.”

All three like the narrow-row system. “I made up my mind to make it work,” Bennett says. “I like the yield potential and quality is good.”