Darrell and Donnie VandeVen believe they have found a better way to grow cotton.
The brothers run a 6,000-acre row crop operation in northeastern Louisiana. In recent years they say they were just breaking even on their cotton crop, but they weren’t ready to give up on it.
“A lot of guys have quit cotton in our area, but we want to grow it,” Darrell VandeVen said. “We enjoy growing cotton, and we don’t want to lose the infrastructure.”
The VandeVens felt a radical change was needed to make their cotton more profitable. Darrell began researching wider row configurations. He knew growers in Georgia were moving to wider rows to combat boll rot issues. Growers in West Texas were using wide rows to reduce competition for moisture. It speaks to the versatility and complexity of cotton that the same management practice could be used to address seemingly opposite issues.
Darrell thought the wide-row cotton pattern could address economic issues, too.
“With 60-inch rows I saw a chance to save money,” he said.
Last year the brothers converted their entire cotton crop to a solid 60-inch row pattern. Darrell described the 2020 crop as excellent, and he estimates the savings in seed and input costs totaled more than $100 per acre.
“If you can save $100 to $120 an acre, you can make $100 to $120 per acre,” Darrell said. “That’s a game changer. Subtract $100 in expenses and cotton can look as good or better than corn.”
How does it yield?
The thought behind wide-row cotton is that the extra space will encourage lateral branching and more fruiting. Does that sideways growth actually translate to higher yields? That is a top-of-mind question for many curious observers.
“If you ask if it yields better, you’re missing the point,” insists VandeVen, who said his 2020 cotton yield was in line with Louisiana averages.
“Yield is a function of environment. There’s probably nothing we can do to consistently bump productivity by 30%, but we found you can cut expenses by 30%. That’s where the opportunity lies,” he added.
The brothers have saved money through reduced seeding rates and reduced fertilizer needs, but they’ve also saved on insecticides. They built a rig that can spray a 20-inch band, which has cut chemical costs by more than 60%.
Another advantage — 60-inch cotton allows growers to plant 30-inch corn and soybeans with less equipment on one set of rows. They plant their corn and soybeans on the side of the row beds, while the cotton comes in the middles. Darrell says the configuration has required less fall field work, has eased planting and allowed them to make planting decisions later in the season.
Wide-row cotton research
Just down the road from the VandeVens at LSU’s Northeast Research Station, scientists are examining the benefits and challenges of growing cotton on wider rows. Interest in 60-inch row cotton is increasing, according to the station’s research coordinator Dennis Burns.
“I think the interest in 30-inch corn and soybeans is really driving the interest in 60-inch cotton,” Burns said. “We know corn and soybeans like 30-inch rows better than 38-inch rows. Cotton on 60-inch rows matches up with 30-inch corn and soybeans and gives producers more flexibility in their planting decisions.”
Last season LSU researchers took their first stab at wide-row cotton evaluations. The project compared 40-inch rows to 60-inch rows both with and without cover crops. Plant populations were 40,000 and 26,000, respectively. In the first year, the 40-inch cotton out yielded the wider rows by about 300 pounds per acre. But Burns says if you look at just row acres, the 60-inch cotton actually performed better.
“We were pleased and somewhat surprised by the 2020 yield,” said Burns. “2021 was a completely different growing environment, though. The excess rain has made our cotton later and weed control has been a struggle all year, but the cotton is looking good and we’re eager to evaluate the data after harvest.”
Based on his research, Burns has concluded that wide-row cotton needs more frequent PGR applications in smaller doses. He also says the system is not for every soil type and not for every cotton variety.
“I don’t know that this system is going to work on clay soils,” Burns said. “Our trials on clay do not look good this year. It’s just been too wet.”
“You also have to pick the right variety,” he added. “You don’t want a tall, skinny plant on a wide row.” The VandeVens have had success planting varieties with bushier growth habits, such as Phytogen 400 and NexGen 4936.
“However, the cost savings and flexibility this system offers could be a positive change for growers in our area,” Burns said. “And by not having to tear down beds every year as you rotate between crops you can improve your soil health.”
Not a blanket solution
For all its benefits, wide-row cotton is not without challenges — most notably delayed maturity. Cotton planted on 60-inch rows may be as much as a week behind 38-inch row cotton. That’s not a big issue in Louisiana, but in the northern end of the Cotton Belt, a week can make or break a crop.
“Every three days you’re stacking fruit going vertically and about every six you’re going laterally, so you can do the math” said Brian Pieralisi, cotton specialist with Mississippi State University. “If you plant on time, it could work, but in a year like 2021, when you can’t get into the field until late May or even early June, it could cause yield reduction.”
Pieralisi is evaluating wide-row cotton in Starkville and Stoneville, Miss. He’s looking at 60-inch rows as well as 76-inch rows that would complement the 38-inch row patterns more commonly found in the northern part of his state. He’s comparing a wide range of plant populations in the wide row system — from as high as 60,000 to as low as 7,500.
“We’re trying to push these plant populations to find the point where we can see a definitive impact. We’re also really interested in fiber quality in this system.”
Pieralisi and his graduate student, Will Rutland, plan to gin the cotton in the wide row research plots by position to establish a loan value based on position on the plant.
“We want to see where the fiber quality is coming from, because those are the bolls you really want to protect,” said Rutland. “We think the lateral positions will be lower quality. Is the contribution to yield offset by reduction in quality? And are you hurting overall quality by waiting on outside bolls to mature? Those are the questions we want to answer.”
While the research is in its first year, Pieralisi is not optimistic that wide-row cotton will be a feasible option for northern Cotton Belt growers — citing concerns with weed control and problems with defoliation due to lateness. He recalls the experience of a northern Mississippi Delta producer in 2020 who had a beautiful 60-inch cotton crop, loaded with bolls. Unfortunately, hurricane remnants passed through prior to defoliation causing his crop to lodge.
“It didn’t defoliate well. It didn’t pick well, and he didn’t do it again,” Pieralisi said. “I think this system could be a good option in southern Mississippi, where they have more issues with boll rot and more producers are planting on 30-inch rows, but I don’t think it’s going to be feasible to delay cotton as you move north. Particularly in a 76/38 system.”
Farmers like a challenge
While not a blanket solution, Darrell VandeVen feels confident 60-inch cotton can keep this crop profitable in his part of the world. Keeping cotton profitable means keeping infrastructure around. It also means continuing to grow the crop he most enjoys.
“Cotton takes a higher degree of management,” he added, “but that’s why many of us enjoy growing cotton. Good cotton farmers like a challenge.”