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15-inch, spindle-picked cotton attracting broader interest

“Tell him to put something in the paper about this four-and-a-half bale cotton,” the voice on the radio crackled.

A grinning Nicky Burgess shook his head at the request from one of his picker drivers. “That’s not four-and-a-half bale cotton,” he said, explaining that he had calibrated the monitor on that operator’s picker with another and both were reading high.

Burgess, precision farming specialist for the Fullen Land and Management operation near Ashport, Tenn., said he would adjust the yields accordingly after the harvest was completed.

Whether the readings were accurate or not, the cotton on the Fullen farm in the “Tennessee Delta” along the western edge of the state certainly looked like it was approaching 4.5 bales. Or maybe the fact it was planted on 15-inch rows just made it look like more.

While much of the Mid-South has suffered from a lack of rainfall in 2006, the fields on the Fullen farm experienced a phenomenal year. Tennessee farmers, as a whole, appear to be harvesting one of their best crops ever.

“We seemed to get a rain whenever we needed it,” said Burgess. “We still had to run our center pivots, but we were getting rains when other farmers around us were missing them.”

The 7,000 acres of cotton on Fullen farm lie in a narrow strip of land along the Mississippi River that looks more like the Mississippi Delta than the rolling hills that make up most of west Tennessee. The land west of Ashport toward the river has deep, alluvial, “Delta-type” soils.

“This was a little Utopia this year,” says Burgess, who came to work for Fullen three years ago. “They’ve grown a little bit of everything here over the years. There are some peanut diggers left over from peanut harvesting under that shed over there.”

At some point in the future, the Fullen farm may have another claim to fame. Scott Fullen and his family were among the first to plant cotton on 15-inch rows and harvest it with a spindle picker.

In the 2004 season, Fullen and a handful of other growers across the Cotton Belt planted a total of 2,000 acres of cotton on 15-inch rows and spindle picked it. Fullen and Gill Rogers of Hartsville, S.C., spoke about their experience at a 15-inch Cotton Symposium at the 2005 Beltwide Cotton Conference in New Orleans.

They harvested the narrow-row cotton using John Deere’s Pro-12 VRS picker. The picker can be configured to harvest 12 rows spaced 15 inches apart or for more conventional row spacings.

Fullen and Rogers’ success attracted the attention of other growers who began experimenting with 15-inch spacings. John Deere agronomists estimate farmers planted 20,000 acres of 15-inch, spindle-picked cotton in 2005 and 40,000 acres in 2006.

Growers have been planting on narrow row (30-inch) and ultra-narrow-row (7.5- to 10- to 15-inch) spacings for a number of years. Research has shown that narrowing the row spacings can increase yields, especially on the more marginal soils such as those in the hill areas of Mississippi and Tennessee.

But the yield gains from ultra-narrow-row, stripper-harvested cotton have often been offset by higher seed costs for increased plant populations and plant growth regulator applications. And growers who were able to save on expenses saw their cotton discounted 2 and 3 cents per pound because of the poor quality reputation of stripper-harvested cotton.

“The added costs and the discounts made it difficult to work economically,” said K.R Reddy, a researcher with the USDA Agricultural Research Service’s Southern Weed Science Research Unit at Stoneville, Miss. “And controlling weeds could be a problem since you couldn’t post-direct herbicides in the ultra narrow rows.

“Now we have Roundup Ready Flex cotton, which you can spray after the four-leaf stage, and seed costs are not as high in the 15-inch cotton as the 7.5-inch or 10-inch row spacings.”

Preliminary research at Stoneville indicates that canopy closure can occur up to four weeks faster in 15-inch cotton than with 40-inch row spacings, possibly saving growers one herbicide application, says Reddy. The narrow row spacings can also reduce the amount of plant growth regulator needed by the cotton.

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