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No-till cotton acreage building in Arkansas

AS IN the rest of the Delta, Arkansas is experiencing a surge in interest in no-till cotton production. That interest will soon translate into more planted acres, says Bill Robertson, Arkansas Extension cotton specialist.

“If you look at percentage of acres, no-till is on about 10 percent of Arkansas' cotton land,” he says. “I expect the acres to increase even further, especially with some of the weed control technology.”

Over the last three years, Robertson has seen about a 50 percent increase in no-till acres. A lot of that is driven by economics. Farmers are looking for ways to reduce costs and Robertson sees no-till cotton fitting the bill for many.

“No-till does take planning. Bill Teeter (a pioneering no-tiller who farms near Winchester, Ark.) knows no-till like few others and he's preached for years about a farmer new to no-till getting a mentor,” says Robertson.

Speaking at the Monsanto Center of Excellence Field Day on Orelan Johnson's Coy, Ark., farm, Robertson said: “That's solid advice for any no-till crop. Farmers new to this need someone they can call up and ask about this cropping system. Believe me, anyone giving this a shot is going to have questions,”

For those growing no-till cotton for the first time, Robertson offers this bit of advice: don't get down on yourself or the crop. “Without proper mental preparation, you can have a cloud over your head the whole first growing season. No-till cotton tends to grow off a little slower.

“Don't get discouraged easily and try and get away from the ‘tilling’ mindset. That's why you need a mentor,” says Robertson.

Anyone giving this a shot should also know that when the ground isn't being worked up, it warms up slower. If you go out and take temperatures, you'll see the difference, says Robertson.

“I went out with Kevin Hoke, a no-tilling farmer outside Jonesboro, early one season and we found a 10 degree difference between the beds he'd worked and those that he didn't.”

In that situation, you might want to wait on the beds to warm up a bit. Or, if you plant them cold, expect the cotton to struggle just a little coming out. If you don't expect it, you'll end up comparing your stand with a neighbor who's planted conventionally. Your cotton will look weak and liable to cost you big, says Robertson.

Getting over that mental hurdle, the seemingly innate need to till, is hard for most farmers. No-till cotton isn't real pretty. At the end of the year, though, the early differences between no-till and conventional crops “just aren't there,” says Robertson.

Through the season, keep in mind that as you drive by and walk the fields, you're seeing what's happening above the soil, but not beneath it. “I wish there was a way to better see what's going on sub-surface because the no-till fields would look a lot healthier from that vantage.”

Other things to consider:

  • Field selection

    “Cotton ground is cotton ground. Plant cotton on buckshot ground and it often doesn't matter what production system you're using, it won't work.”

  • Vegetative cover

    In the southern part of the state, farmers often get by well with natural weeds as vegetative cover. In the north, however, many farmers are drilling wheat in the middles to provide protection from wind and blowing sand.

    “One thing we're seeing some of is waiting too long to terminate the cover crop. That means seeing false chinch bugs and other pests.

    “So we need to be timely with termination of cover crops. Part of that is a 2,4-D application sometime in mid-February. That goes a long way toward controlling problem weeds.”

    Robertson says he wants to plant cotton — whatever the system — into a clean field. That saves the crop from problems later with insect populations jumping in the cover crop. Because once a farmer terminates the cover crop, pests are going to look for something else to eat.

    “They'll likely move to the cotton. Cover crops are a great tool, but must be controlled,” he notes.

    If you do have a lot of vegetative cover, a dollar's worth of pyrethroid behind the press wheel goes a long way toward controlling cutworms. That's important to consider.

  • Planting

    You don't need a whole bunch of specialized equipment to go no-till. Converting existing equipment is a lower-cost alternative. It doesn't cost a bunch of money getting into this. Some farmers — including Teeter — have bought specialized equipment and say it just isn't necessary in producing a no-till crop.

  • Fertility and lime

    Soil fertility is a key in no-till. When no-tilling, fields can't be lacking any fertility element because it's hard to correct once the season has begun.

    “You need to address fertility concerns first. Forget how you'll plant a no-till crop; forget how you'll harvest it. The first concern is getting the field fertility up to speed” Robertson notes.

    “In regard to nitrogen, I feel that knifing it in is fine. Many farmers have switched to urea because of the price. Some plowed it in and it hadn't set there for 30 minutes before it was watered in. Others put it out hoping for rain and it sat there for a week. The point is, just because you buy 90 units, doesn't mean there will be 90 units available to the plants. We're now seeing the results of that. Some of our petioles crashed early.”

  • Insects

    Other than insects that move in off cover crops, the pest situation is pretty much the same as with conventional cotton.

  • Stalk destruction

    “This is something we've really run into a problem with, mostly with farmers using a flail shredder for destruction. The requirements from the State Plant Board are there to help with the pink bollworm,” Robertson said.

“Farmers need to make sure before going into a field with a flail shredder that they fill out an application.”

Applications can be found at local Extension offices. Fill out and turn in the application before shredding, warns Robertson. A Plant Board employee will come look at the shredder and make sure it's a high-speed machine. If approved, stalks can then be shredded. If you don't do things in that order, expect trouble.

“There were some farmers in Crittenden County this year who went in and shredded their stalks 8 to 10 inches high but they hadn't done the paper work as required,” Robertson said. “The Plant Board made them hip over those stalks. That cost diesel and a burndown had already been put out.”

What the Plant Board wants is to make sure the small, green, unopened bolls are busted up. If that happens, the pink bollworm has nowhere to overwinter.

“This takes planning. You can't just wake up and hit the field no-tilling. For me, it's a process that starts at harvest the year before. If you make a plan, though, no-till cotton will pay off,” says Robertson.

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