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Grower rare no-till success in West

Goodyear, Ariz., cotton farmer Ron Rayner hardly fits the description of the Biblical giant Samson. Yet the two have a lot in common.

Samson's long flowing hair is part of what was known as a Nazirite Vow that included the promise that no razor would touch his head.

The veteran Arizona cotton producer has taken his version of an equally unique vow for a farmer in the arid Southwest. For eight years neither plow nor disk has touched fields that have grown cotton, alfalfa and cereal grains on his family's A Tumbling T Ranches.

Conservation tillage in Arizona and California cotton production is an oxymoron. As hard as many have tried, few in the West have made true row crop conservation tillage or no-till work until now. The definition of no-till is that 30 percent of the soil surface is covered with crop residue after planting.

Less than one-half of 1 percent of row crop farming in the Far West fits that definition.

The primary reason for the lack of adoption of no-till is not the lack of interest. It is because there is not enough rain, freezing and thawing and other weather factors to decompose the residue to where it will not interfere with growing the crop, primarily with irrigation.

“The wheat straw in our no-till fields never really goes away,” says Rayner.

Nevertheless, the former National Cotton Council president and longtime industry leader has not only learned to live with residue, he has made it work for him to produce a higher quality and less expensive cotton crop.

Rayner was on the popular grower innovator panel at the Beltwide Cotton Conferences in New Orleans where he mesmerized the audience with details of a no-till system he has been working on for nine years.

No one was more surprised to hear his story than Western cotton producers who have heard similar stories for years from growers from other parts of the Cotton Belt, only to be thwarted in attempts to duplicate cheaper and more beneficial conservation tillage in the West.

No one has worked harder at adapting conservation tillage to the arid West than University of California Extension specialist Jeff Mitchell. He has had some success in helping growers reduce tillage passes in a tomato-cotton rotation. However, Mitchell admits his goal has changed from achieving that 30 percent residue criteria to helping growers reduce tillage operations to save on fuel and machinery costs and meet stiffer air quality standards.

Nevertheless, Mitchell has an ambitious goal of 20 percent of California farms practicing conservation tillage within five years and half using what he calls minimum tillage.

Rayner is already where Mitchell hopes California will be in five years.

Basin or border irrigation is common in the West, primarily with alfalfa and cereal grains. However, Arizona and California cotton is always planted in furrows either into moisture or watered up. That means cultivating the soil after a grain or alfalfa crop to get it ready for cotton.

Like Rayner's, larger cotton farms on the west side of California's San Joaquin Valley irrigate between wide borders with huge heads of water, but the cotton is still on beds, never flat.

Rayner dry plants cotton flat and irrigates it over the top, an unheard of practice. “My dad taught me that you never put water over the top of cotton, but it works just fine for us, especially with the heavy mulch of straw that we have,” Rayner told a large crowd at one of the Beltwide general sessions.

It has been a long journey to no-till for Rayner, who farms with his two brothers and nephew in Goodyear and near Gila Bend, Ariz. “We started working on this nine years ago, and in the last four we have had pretty good results,” he said.

Rayner's no-till farming takes place between two borders spaced 100 to 150 feet apart. His rotation starts by flat-planting wheat with an air seeder and incorporating the seed with a light packing and tilling implement. The wheat is harvested in early summer, and stacked gene (Bt and Roundup Ready) cotton is planted with a 38-inch spacing directly into the wheat stubble and straw. Planting dates are between May 15 and the first week of June. It is irrigated up.

Waiting to plant cotton until May 15 is important in the farm's no-till system, emphasizes Rayner. Plant too early and soil conditions in the wheat mulch will be cool and cotton will have a difficult time germinating. Also by planting in mid-May, the cotton avoids stressful midsummer monsoons at fruiting time. It is also one-set cotton and that has proven to significantly improve quality, said Rayner.

After the cotton is harvested in the fall, barley is planted to be harvested in the summer and the field left fallow until alfalfa is seeded later in the fall without cultivation into the barley residue. After three years in alfalfa, the forage crop is killed and wheat is fall planted and followed again by summer cotton.

Rayner's cotton is defoliated in mid-October after a Sept. 1 “termination application” of the plant growth regulator Pix to force the plant's energy into maturing the bolls.

“Cotton yields are about 1,600 pounds per acre double-cropped after a three-ton crop of wheat,” said Rayner. There is no second picking because of the wheat straw mulch. Cotton stalks are shredded.

“About the only true tillage we do is run a shallow ripper down the cotton seed line to rip up the stalks.” That takes out the short, sharp cotton stalks that can be tough on tractor tires and also makes for a slightly warmer seedbed for the barley.

In the Roundup Ready cotton, there is one over-the-top application of herbicide and a post-directed glyphosate application before layby.

Bt cotton takes care of any worm pests, but there are few other pests. “We average about one insect spray on conventional cotton and average maybe half a spray for all the no-till acreage. Insects are less of a problem in no-till, and I am at a loss to explain why.”

Rayner is also at a loss to explain fully why lint quality is better in no-till.

Staple length is significantly longer in no-till and micronaire is lower on the same varieties as farmed conventionally. There is also no aflatoxin in the cottonseed from no-till. High micronaire, short staple and aflatoxin are the three biggest nemesis for Arizona cotton growers.

The difference in quality between no-till and conventional, long-season cotton represents 3 to 4 cents per pound going into the loan on the same variety.

Rayner and Delta and Pine Co. breeder Larry Burdett surmised better quality could be from two environmental factors. One is that it is one-set cotton where as lower bolls in two set cotton tend to increase bale micronaire. Second, the wheat mulch is creating a cooler cotton-growing environment.

In a variety trial last year conducted by University of Arizona Cooperative Extension Maricopa County Extension agent Pat Clay, an Acala variety from the San Joaquin Valley, Phytogen's 710, and a FiberMax variety yielded well. Neither Acalas nor FiberMax varieties have ever yielded well in the past in Central Arizona due to a lack of varietal heat tolerance. The cooler environment plus the late fruit set of Rayner's no-till cotton apparently overcame the lack of heat tolerance.

“The yield differences were not statistically different, but they yielded well nonetheless,” said Rayner.

Overall, cotton yields are a “little less” with Arizona no-till than traditional long-season cotton, but the three-ton wheat offsets cotton yield loss and improves cash flow for the year, he said.

“You also rely heavier on purchased inputs in no-till,” he added.

It cost about $300 per acre in cash costs to produce the no-till crop, about $150 per acre less than conventional cost. Those figures do not include fuel and equipment costs.

The field is irrigated with a 12-cubic-feet per second head of water — about 5,000 gallons per minute — between the 100 to 150-feet wide borders.

The straw does not impede the flow of the water nor does the straw collect at the tail of the field. “The straw just floats up with the water and when the water soaks in, the straw settles back on the ground,” he said. The fields are a quarter-mile long. Some are dead level. Rayner said he plans to re-level dead level fields to give them more fall for improved irrigation movement across the crop residue.

Rayner has joined the growing throng of farmers using GPS tractor guidance systems, and that has helped with no-till. “That has been critical in getting the planting rows correctly spaced between the borders. When we started using the GPS, we found out how crooked our borders were. We are starting to rework them using GPS.”

Rayner is pleased with the system, not only because it reduces costs, but no-till will help him continue farming in a non-attainment air quality area.

“When you do not cultivate and there is a mulch on top of the ground, there is no dust and that is a big plus for farmers in our area,” said Rayner.

Rayner's success could not be more opportune. California and Arizona producers are more interested in conservation and minimum tillage than ever before with higher costs and new air quality standards.

Mitchell said those are the two biggest factors driving grower interest in the practice.

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