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Narrow rows keep yields steady

Narrow-row cotton, an extra set of eyes in the field and some quick thinking helps Turrell, Ark., cotton producer Lee Wiener, Pacco, Inc., overcome soil and weather variability during the growing season.

Wiener, who farms about 6,000 acres of cotton with his son, Russel, went to a narrow-row, 30-inch cotton configuration 13 years ago partly for consistency in yield and partly for convenience.

“We stopped growing cotton back in the late 1970s because yields weren't doing well,” Wiener explained. “So we decided to double-crop wheat and soybeans. We did that for a number of years through the 1980s. But that got a little old when wheat yields went down.”

In the late 1980s, Wiener noticed that cotton production was again starting to offer some potential for profit. The Wieners wanted to switch to cotton, but needed to hold down new equipment purchases.

“We had to make a huge investment in tractors and cotton pickers,” said Wiener. “We were already growing 30-inch milo and 30-inch soybeans, and we didn't want to have two sets of equipment. That's one reason we went to 30-inch cotton.”

Another reason for growing narrow-row cotton is the number of fields with heavier soil, a mix of Sharkey clay and Tunica clay. “We felt like narrow-row lent itself to that soil type,” Wiener said. “On years when it gets hot and dry, we have stalk size, and we have the plants, about 25 percent more plants per acre than 38- or 40-inch rows.”

On the downside, narrow-row costs the Wieners more in down-the-row inputs.

Wiener also took the advice of friends and hired a consultant, Danny Moore. “Because of what he sees in the fields, we have always yielded between 800 pounds and 1,000 pounds of cotton. And that's on 5,000 acres to 7,000 acres of cotton. I've been fortunate. Danny has been with us all these years, and I think he's the best.”

Weather variability for the last two years has challenged the farm's yield objectives, however. This year, a very late spring kept them out of the field and put field preparation way behind.

They responded by leaving out a few steps in field preparation, including not running their Paratill. They bedded up, knocked the beds down and planted. “We were actually in good shape then because April was relatively dry,” Wiener said.

They started planting around the end of April and made great progress until they were stopped by a short spell of wet weather. By then “the cotton we had planted came blowing out of the ground.”

But the end of the first week in May brought big trouble — high winds and 8 to 10 inches of rain over the farm. “We didn't go back to the field for two and a half weeks.”

When the planting window opened again, they made a few more adjustments, including going to a short-season variety (PM 1218 BG/RR) on the late-planted fields.

They had another tough decision to make on a field planted to ST 5599 BR on April 28. The wind and rain had laid the 6-inch tall plants over. “It was absolutely stuck to the ground,” Wiener said of the crop.

Moore called Wisner, La., cotton producer and consultant Ray Young, who advised him to keep the stand if he thought the plants could survive.

“So we did,” Moore said. The field was stunted and matured later than some of the Wieners' late-planted cotton. But not only did it survive, it made 1,100 pounds (per acre) of cotton. Wiener noted that good weather in October and November helped the field reach its yield potential.

The variety was also the top-yielding variety across the farm, Wiener noted. “We are very pleased with its yield, picking ability and vigor coming out of the ground.”

The Wieners also slowed their planting speed this season, going from 6 mph to 5 mph. “With the spring rains we've been having, we get rough planting conditions all the time in this mixed type dirt. When we went from 6 mph to 5 mph, it didn't sound like much. But this is probably the most uniform stand that we've had in a long time. A slow planting speed gives you uniform planting depth.

“How you start a crop is often a good indicator of how you finish a crop,” Wiener added. “So the next economic decision I'll make is that if I want to plant faster, I'll buy more planters.”

In season, the Wieners applied an average of 24 ounces of Pix over the crop, and 30-plus ounces on some fields. “We have done a good job the last two years of keeping stalk size down to waist level,” Wiener said.

All of the Wieners' cotton was hit with a severe infestation of plant bugs in 2003. “On some farms, we sprayed an average of four to five times. We also had aphids in there, and we used Centric to take out both.” Other insecticides/fungicides used in 2003 include Temik, Ridomil, Quadris, and Orthene.

In addition, worm pressure was very heavy in Bt cotton, according to Moore. “The first time we sprayed for bollworms at peak bloom. After that, there was a mix of fall armyworms and bollworms in the field. We averaged three sprays across our Bt cotton (going with Karate).

Despite the horrendous planting season, yields were excellent, according to Wiener. “Grades have been outstanding. Most everything is middling or better. We're going to make 900 pounds to 1,000 pounds across the board. Considering how late we planted, I'm overjoyed with that.”

On the other hand, “it was an expensive crop because of the costs of plant bug control, late-season armyworm control, eradication and all the money we're paying for technology fees. We have had a lot of difficulty getting bolls to open and getting cotton to fluff out for picking. We have spent a lot of money on defoliants.”

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