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Corn+Soybean Digest

Cover Crop Shields Young Cotton

Texan says rye prevents wind damage David McAnear was tired of watching his cotton yields blow away. He smothered the problem by adding a rye cover crop to his continuous cotton program near Clarendon, TX.

McAnear recently harvested his 25th cotton crop. He uses both center-pivot and furrow irrigation. Like others in this sandy loam soil region of the Texas Panhandle, he has constantly battled the wind.

The most damage occurs when newly emerged cotton plants are exposed to blowing soil. Plants are especially vulnerable a day or two after a quick-striking spring rain that forms a thin crust. Strong winds rip up sand particles, which can strip plants of their leaves.

McAnear had tried minimum- and no-till cotton in the past, with either cotton stalks or a wheat cover crop to control blowing. It worked sometimes, but not good enough. "We still had to `sand fight' it with a rolling cultivator," he says. "The rye seems to work better for us in controlling wind erosion."

But when Roundup Ready (RR) cotton varieties were introduced, he enhanced his cover crop success rate. He gained more freedom in controlling rye growth without damaging his cotton.

"I plant rye on cotton ground just after cotton harvest," he says. "If necessary, I irrigate the rye to generate and maintain solid growth in late winter."

Watering helps produce growth until May 1, when the rye is about 12" tall. He kills the crop with Roundup, then waters yellow herbicide into the soil before planting RR cotton from mid-May to June 1.

Using a home-built narrow-row planter, he plants two 13"-spaced rows on 40" beds for furrow-irrigated cotton. Then he adds seven more planter units to make solid 13"-spaced rows for center-pivot irrigation.

When plants emerge, the rye stubble provides a blanket of protection against blowing. Perhaps just as important, it helps prevent disease.

"We've always had a problem with blight after heavy rainstorms," says McAnear. "With the cover crop, blight is no longer a problem."

The cover crop also holds moisture, which promotes a good stand and continued growth. He's enjoying a 11/42 bale/acre yield increase. "Before, we rarely made over 1 11/42 bales/acre," says McAnear. "Now we're seeing two bales, the first time that's ever happened on this farm."

He's even considering planting cotton in still-growing rye, then killing the cover crop when he makes his over-the-top Roundup application. "If that works, we can save another trip with the sprayer," he says.

Along with a small-grain cover crop, some growers plant strips of wheat or rye at least 25' wide in cotton fields. This system provides a buffer zone that tempers blowing problems.

"No matter what type program you use, a cover crop can certainly make a difference in a no-till program," says McAnear.

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