Tradition. Sometimes it's hard to get away from doing things the way generations of family have done them. But occasionally change is not only acceptable but also necessary.

“I'm a third generation (cotton) farmer,” says Randal Bankhead of Roscoe, Texas. “And we have always farmed by traditional methods. We would plow and plow and plow and then change plows and plow some more. It got to where we were doing a lot of recreational tillage.”

The tradition had to stop, he said, during an innovative grower panel at the recent Beltwide Cotton Conferences in New Orleans. He's converted to a conservation tillage program that offers a bunch of benefits he never got from perpetual plowing.

“It starts with a mind change,” Bankhead says. “I knew we had to do something different.”

Bankhead irrigates 1,400 acres and farms another 1,300 dryland. By necessity, he uses different tillage systems on each.

“We average 20 inches of annual rainfall, so we have to preserve our land and water resources,” he says. “The best way I've found is to maintain crop residue. That puts us in the best possible position to increase yield.”

He says conservation offers him better soil moisture, a better profit potential and a better future. “Our number one challenge in this area (the Texas Rolling Plains) is sand storms.”

He recalls an irrigated crop in the early 1990s that got off to a good start only to suffer through several sand storms. “I think I planted every acre two and some three times,” he says. In the mid-1990s he started using cover crops to protect seedling cotton from blowing sand.

He says in May of 1997 he had a good crop coming along. He had a good two-inch rain and then a sand storm.

“For 15 minutes I couldn't see the front wheel of the tractor. I had to replant everything except a few fields where I had a wheat cover crop.”

He says rain also washed out part of his young crop. Planting in cover takes care of most of those problems, he says.

“I haven't found an answer to a hail storm, however.”

Raising a cover crop demands more attention, Bankhead says. “I had to intensify management. Irrigation timing, for instance, is critical.”

As soon as he harvests cotton in the fall he shreds stalks and plants wheat, seeding through four drills and plugging the fifth to leave an open slot to seed the next cotton crop. He fertilizes with a coulter rig.

Terminating the cover crop requires a bit of balance, too, he says. “We want wheat tall enough to protect young cotton but not stay long enough to take a lot of moisture. We like to terminate it about boot-high. We can't terminate it by the calendar. We have to watch growth.”

He says a two-inch rain early on the cotton “is a blessing. The first 30 to 40 days are extremely important to get the crop off to a good start.”

He has some circles divided in half and plants half in cotton and half in wheat to conserve water. “I plant cotton in the previous year's wheat stubble.”

Dividing circles, he says, provides him the best opportunity to reach yield goals with limited water, four or five gallons per minute.

“We try to make three bales per acre,” he says. “The last three years we hit right on that mark.”

It's more difficult to follow a sound conservation tillage system on dryland, he says.

“We tried cover crops with limited success. “We have trouble getting the cover crop up or we can't terminate it or we use up all our moisture growing it.”

He's tried planting no-till milo in the previous season's cotton stalks. He also plants dryland wheat as a rotation and maintains the row traffic patterns to minimize compaction. He follows wheat with cotton, planted in the stubble.

“I'll re-bed the land after harvest. I like to plant in a moist seedbed.”

He says dryland yields may run from 100 to 150 pounds per acre in a drought year but will make much more with adequate rainfall.

“We made a bale-and-a-half last year with good rain.”

e-mail: rsmith@primediabusiness.com