J.C. Banks, Oklahoma Extension cotton specialist, admits that what he's been working on this spring and summer would not have pleased his father.
“He would have hated no-till cotton,” Banks said recently as he pointed out a number of reduced-till plots near the Oklahoma Research and Extension Center at Altus. “He liked clean fields.”
A lot of Southwestern cotton producers would have agreed with Banks' father, but are rethinking their prejudice against what many used to refer to as “trash farming.”
This marks the first year that Banks has made a concerted effort to test the various minimum tillage practices. “We got a planting system put together for the first time this year,” he said, “thanks to John Deere and the Oklahoma State University Integrated Pest Management program. We had played around with reduced tillage cotton before, but we never had the right equipment to make it work properly.”
Banks says two significant factors make minimum till practical for cotton farmers. “Roundup Ready cotton varieties and residue management attachments for planters make the system work,” he says.
With those innovations, farmers can reduce or eliminate cultivation and they can plant into old crop residue or cover crop stubble without worrying about a stand. He says John Deere and Yetter, among other equipment makers, have paved the way for better implements.
“Spiked wheels and heavy-duty down-pressure springs make the system feasible,” he says. “The planting system worked perfectly.”
Banks says one test plot he's watching this summer shows the value of residue management.
“We had a cover crop on the field and grazed cattle on it all winter,” he says. “We kept the animals on even in wet weather and they caused significant surface compaction. It was not deeply compacted, but, until we got rain, I couldn't push a pocketknife blade more than one-fourth inch into the soil. The soil was as hard as any I've ever seen.”
He says when it finally rained, they got three inches in one event. “But it was a slow rain. Still, we were amazed that we got that much and saw very little runoff.”
Banks set the planter's down pressure at maximum to plant. “We also had to adjust the wheels to keep them from sliding. We had a lot of weight on the planting unit.”
He's looking at various residues and also seeding rate. “We planted this field with nine pounds of seed per acre. In one plot we varied the rate from seven to 12 pounds to see if it makes a difference in performance.
“We're also testing Temik. We left it out of some strips to see if we can tell a difference in yield. I expect that Temik will show an increase.”
Banks says weather took a toll on some of their plots. “We had to plant some fields three times before we kept a stand,” he says. Early in the season, conditions were too dry for seed to germinate and several fields were wiped out by high winds and hail, some of them twice.
“Even with a stubble on one field, hail and heavy rain eroded the soil badly,” he says. “We had ditches running across the field from six inches to one foot deep.”
One field was flooded out and another was covered by debris from high water.
He says conventional cotton was wiped out by the storms.
Banks used Roundup or Touchdown to knock down winter weeds. Some plots he's used a pre-emergence herbicide to check for residual control and some he's relied on Roundup or Touchdown, applied before the four-leaf stage, for season-long control.
“We kept fields clean with Roundup and Touchdown,” he says.
He says farmers are interested in reducing tillage operations in cotton, primarily to save costs.
“They want to reduce trips across the field,” he says, “and hope to save money on fuel and equipment upkeep. Farmers also reduce risk by protecting seedling cotton from blowing wind and hail.”
Banks says farmers have been discouraged by the declining profit potential from cotton for the past three years and some, especially those without irrigation, are considering other crop options.
“Many are looking at wheat, but they have to include cattle into the equation,” he says. “Profit on wheat depends on high cattle prices.”
He says farmers have begun to experiment with reduced tillage as a way to stay in cotton but few have gone to a complete no-till system.
“Ro-till is a good compromise between conventional tillage systems and no-till,” Banks says. “A number of farmers are experimenting with ro-till, working up a small area for a seedbed and maintaining residue in the middles.”
He says one farmer in Washita County had used ro-till but tried a no-till plot this year. “He didn't think he could penetrate the rye cover crop with the planter, but he had no trouble with the John Deere and the cutting attachments. He was not sure it would work, but it did.”
Banks says no-till is the “next natural step from ro-till cotton. Farmers who start out with a ro-till system may evolve into no-till in a year or two.”
He sees advantages with each system. “Ro-till, because it prepares a narrow seedbed, will have warmer soils to plant in early in the year,” he says. “We also expect sunlight to dry out the fields and allow farmers to get in a little sooner.
“With no-till,” he says, “farmers use less energy, they get a little more protection from wind, rain and hail, and they can be a little more timely with some practices.”
“If it works the way it's supposed to, reduced tillage can allow farmers to produce cotton almost as cheaply as they can grow wheat.”