If Haywood County, Tenn., farmer Kevin Earnheart were a shirt label, it would read “100% Cotton”.
Haywood and the surrounding counties of Tipton, Fayette, Madison, Hardeman, Crocket, Dyer and Lauderdale collectively make up nearly 65 percent of Tennessee’s cotton acreage. In 2007 Haywood County had 125,000 acres of cotton — the most in any county east of the Mississippi River, but high grain prices temporarily shuttered many cotton harvesters.
“Ten years ago, my father and I started a grain rotation because our cotton yields became stagnant. I told folks we started planting grain so we could grow more cotton,” jokes Earnheart, who admitted during a recent Dow AgroSciences field day in Halls, Tenn., he is more comfortable growing cotton because he knows it can take stress and still make a good crop.
With only 50 percent of his over 6,000-acre operation under a pivot, Earnheart, who farms with his father, has made some excellent dryland yields, and from a management standpoint, equates 1,000-pound cotton to 150-bushel corn.
“Sixty-cent cotton is like $4 corn on my farm, so seventy-five cent cotton is just more profitable at the end of the day. I’ve seen corn go backwards too many times,” says Earnheart, who will harvest his 24th crop (for his father Freddie and mother Louise, the 58th crop) this year.
Technologies, Traits and Trials
Dr. Chris Main, cotton development specialist for PhytoGen, has been working with Earnheart since 2005 and knows he loves testing new products and processes.
Main and other Dow AgroSciences researchers showcased several new cotton technologies at the field day, but emphasis was placed on the Enlist weed control system because 2017 is the first year the complete system has been fully enabled. Enlist Duo herbicide with “Colex-D technology” combines Dow’s proprietary 2,4-D choline with glyphosate to reduce drift and volatility.
“PhytoGen cotton breeders have delivered high-yielding varieties with excellent fiber quality packages, but yield and quality don’t stand a chance to materialize if you can’t control your pigweed. When they married their varieties with an effective over-the-top weed control technology, that’s when I knew adopting the complete package was the right decision for my operation,” adds Earnheart.
This year Earnheart planted six different PhytoGen varieties across his farm into soils ranging from sandy to heavy clay. He keeps charts on each field’s level of organic matter (OM) and planted PhytoGen 490 W3FE on ground with the least OM, and PhytoGen 312 WRF or PhytoGen 340 W3FE on his irrigated ground.
“We talk so much about the Enlist cotton trait being tolerant to 2,4-D, we fail to focus on its tolerance to glufosinate. In many markets, using glufosinate in the farming system with full commercial tolerance is as important as being able to use auxin herbicides. Having those three modes of action for weed control is very important, especially in areas where we have high populations of pigweed,” says Dr. Russell Nuti, cotton development specialist for PhytoGen, who also highlighted illustrations of how PhytoGen cotton seed varieties continue to collectively yield higher than the national average yield trend line.
Earnheart planted his first PhytoGen variety (PHY 375 WRF) on 30-inch rows in 2008, but has experimented with other row spacing configurations. When rotating cotton with grain, he found a way to use the same planter by pulling out two of the four rows on the planter.
“I grew one row, and then I skipped a row, planted four rows, then a skip and then one row. It was like harvesting with an eight-row 30-inch picker missing two rows. The rows were scattered out a bit, but it allowed me to optimize the use of an expensive piece of equipment,” says Earnheart, who admits he didn’t necessarily gain a yield advantage, but did increase his overall operational efficiency. Now, he utilizes a traditional skip-row pattern where he plants two rows and skips one row.
Since 2014, Earnheart Farms has participated in the University of Tennessee large replicated on-farm variety trials conducted in part by Tyson Raper, cotton and small grains specialist, University of Tennessee Extension.
“Being part of these annual trials allows Kevin to see first-hand how a variety will perform in his farm’s growing environment. I think other growers in this area will be interested to see how well the Enlist system performs on his operation, and will be eager to adopt it next year,” adds PhytoGen’s Chris Main.
Dr. Jonathan Siebert, Enlist field sales leader, works with cotton, corn and soybeans, but because cotton was the first Enlist crop to be fully commercialized, he spends more time this year working in cotton.
“We did have a ‘stewarded’ introduction of our varieties with the Enlist trait, but commercially it wasn’t herbicide-enabled, so we’re excited to see how our genetics perform on the system as a whole,” says Siebert, who also mentioned that Dow AgroSciences got import approval this past June for Enlist corn in China and will be launching that complete system in the United States in 2018.
Haywood and the surrounding counties were the epicenter for glyphosate-resistant weeds in Tennessee. It was also where resistant marestail first hit the map. Siebert explained how easy the Enlist system is to use and how it brings an additional tool growers can use to broaden their weed resistant management programs.
“The industry has gotten a better handle on resistant weeds the last couple of years, but the problem isn’t going away. Stratus Ag Research data indicates there are in excess of 100 million acres of cropland infested with glyphosate-resistant and/or hard to control weeds,” adds Siebert.
Siebert, who is from Greenville, Miss., alluded to the excessive rainfall this year and knows corn farmers in his area who have made an entire crop without having to roll out any poly-pipe. That same scenario occurred in Haywood County where 14 days of rain delayed cotton planting.
“I had some young cotton damaged from blowing sand around the second week of June. It was very dry with only a slight chance of rain, so I ran my pivot over half the field. We got seven-tenths of an inch that night and hadn’t stopped raining since,” exclaimed Earnheart, shaking his head in disbelief.
Enlist Duo is an important tool for Earnheart Farm’s weed control program because the extended wet periods prevented them from getting in fields. Earnheart’s father-in-law participated in a grower research plot last year which allowed him to make an application of Enlist Duo to the PhytoGen variety with the Enlist cotton trait. It was planted next to other varieties and one field of conventional soybeans.
“I remember he made one application over the top and got no off-target movement, which was good to see,” says Earnheart.
Earnheart and Main have a unique and mutually-beneficial relationship. Each time they get into the truck and ride around to check cotton, Main learns something he can relate to his team at PhytoGen and Earnheart learns something he can use to improve his farming operation.