Reduced-till and no-till cotton acres now comprise 59 percent of total U.S. cotton acres since herbicide-tolerant, transgenic cottons became widely available in 1997, according to a study conducted for the National Cotton Council that was released at the Beltwide Cotton Conferences at Nashville, Tenn.

The study, which was supported by the Cotton Foundation, showed that no-till acres have nearly doubled, to 29 percent of total cotton acres, and reduced-till acres have more than doubled, accounting for 30 percent of cotton acres.

The increases are attributed to the availability of herbicide-tolerant cotton, according to Dr. Andrew Jordan, the council's technical services director, making it more feasible and practical for cotton growers to adopt conservation tillage practices.

Conservation tillage methods, including no-till and reduced-till, help protect farmland from wind and rain erosion, limiting run-off into streams and rivers‥

The change was most prevalent in the Mid-South states, where 66 percent of the farmers reported an increase in conservation tillage acres over the last five years. Area growers said that 74 percent of their 2002 cotton acres were no-till or reduced-till.

Conservation tillage is least prevalent in the far west states, where only 17 percent of growers surveyed have increased con-till acres over the past five years, and just 18 percent of the 2002 cotton acres were in no-till or reduced-till.

The introduction of herbicide-tolerant varieties, especially with Roundup Ready technology, was cited as the decisive factor by 79 percent of those who have moved to conservation tillage in the last five years.

Roundup Ready cotton acres have tripled since 1997 and accounted for 77 percent of total cotton acres in 2002.

“This new study merely confirms what most of us suspected — that weed control is critical for a good cotton crop and biotechnology is giving growers another weed control tool, while allowing them to move to more cost-effective, environmentally sound methods of cotton production.”

Growers in the survey indicated that, on average, conservation tillage results in a $20.13 savings for fuel and labor when compared to conventional acres.

The study was conducted by Doane Market Research, Inc., a firm nationally recognized for its expertise in conducting agricultural research involving farmers.

Doane interviewed a random sample of 369 growers across the cotton belt, each with at least 250 acres of cotton. Sample quotas were established based on the proportion of cotton acres in a state to the total acres in the 13 cotton-producing states.

The study showed that 52 percent of respondents increased their no-till cotton acres between 1997 and 2002. Eighty percent are making fewer tillage passes in cotton and 75 percent are leaving more crop residue on the soil surface.

About 64 percent of the conventional-till cotton growers indicated they have considered trying reduced-till or no-till cotton, but haven't made the move. The price/availability of equipment was the primary deterrent, followed by ground and weather conditions.

While the move to no-till and reduced-till has been dramatic, during the same period cotton acres planted in ultra-narrow (7 to 10 inches) or narrow rows (11 - 29 inches) have increased by only a fraction of a percent to account for slightly under 2 percent of the total, the study found.

With no-till farming, the ground is not plowed at all and the cotton crop is planted directly through organic matter left from the previous crop. Residue is allowed to build up to protect the soil. In reduced tillage, the ground is disturbed less than with conventional tillage methods.

“Cotton producers work hard to grow cotton in the most efficient ways possible,” Jordan said. “We're always looking for new tools such as biotechnology to help us work smarter and more cost-effectively. Being good stewards of the soil must be basic to cotton production.”

The NCC's mission is to insure the ability of all U.S. cotton industry segments to compete effectively and profitably in the raw cotton, oilseed, and manufactured product markets at home and abroad.

More than 3,000 people attended the yearly cotton conferences.

hbrandon@primediabusiness.com