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No-till successful for North Carolina cotton growers

Growing no-till cotton in eastern North Carolina is still far from the norm, but for Trenton, N.C., growers Mike and Timmy Haddock it was the only way to offset the cost of labor, equipment, pesticides, fuel, and fertilizer.

In addition to saving money, switching to no-till allowed the environmentally conscious brothers to take better care of the land. Reducing wind erosion on the fine sandy soil on most of their land and reducing water runoff and soil erosion were other benefits of no-till for the North Carolina farmers.

Attention to soil and water conservation, adoption of efficient technology and consistent production history earned the brothers the 2008 High Cotton Award for the Southeast region.

The Haddock brothers grew up on a tobacco farm. Long hours of tedious work on the farm convinced both of them to try something else. They did, but farming was in their blood and first Mike came back to the family farm in 1973. Timmy followed in 1980. In 1985, their father retired and the Haddock brothers formed a partnership.

The economics of switching from conventional tillage to no-till became evident after a few crops of cotton. Though cotton was king in many parts of the Southeast, to Jones County and much of eastern North Carolina, it hadn’t been grown in at least 30 years prior to the late 1980s.

In 1988, cotton was grown on tobacco-dominated farms of Jones County, along North Carolina’s central coast. “That was the first cotton I had ever seen in my life,” Mike Haddock says. “We watched our neighbor grow that first crop, then a second crop, and we put in our first cotton in 1990, Mike adds.

At that time there was no gin in Jones County, N.C — their home county. So, in 1990, before ever growing a crop of cotton, the Haddock brothers became two of 15 farmers binding together to build a gin. It was built to gin only the crops produced by the owners, though its size grew during the boom years in the 1990s.

When they planted that first crop of cotton in 1990, the 525 acres looked like an impossible task. “We worked with Billy McLawhorn, our crop consultant who has been with us from the start, but at that time he had only a couple years of experience with cotton. It was a challenge, but we got through it,” Mike recalls.

“That first year we got a half inch of rain between May 18 and the second week in August, which is much like our crop this year. That first year we made a little over 600 pounds per acre. After that first crop was ginned, Timmy made the comment — if we can make 600 pounds of cotton with no rain, imagine what we can do when we do get rain,” Mike says, recalling their dry start to cotton farming.

That first year they made 21 trips across the field, primarily running cultivators from sunup till sundown. “Somebody asked me, how long do you cultivate cotton, and I told him till you pick it or frost comes,” Timmy says.

In 1998, the Haddock brothers made a commitment to no-till and cotton farming has not been the same — in a good way, they agree. Last year was their ninth crop of cotton planted no-till and it proved to be a godsend as near record drought plagued Jones County much of the year.

Veteran crop consultant Billy McLawhorn, who owns and operates McLawhorn Crop Service, Inc., in Cove City, N.C., and works with a number of cotton growers in the area, contends the moisture-conserving capabilities of long-term no-till land proved its mettle in the drought year.

“Mike and Timmy planted their cotton about the same time as everybody else, but the conventional-tillage growers had to defoliate their cotton early, because of the drought. The Haddock’s crop held fruit longer and had a much better top crop.” McLawhorn says.

Despite the drought, Mike and Timmy Haddock harvested one of their better crops. In a year in which most of their neighbors suffered significant yield loss to the drought, the no-till cotton on the Haddock’s farm seemed to tolerate the hot, dry weather much better than cotton planted in traditional tillage systems.

At the time they switched to no-till, the Haddocks were putting an average of 300 to 400 hours a year on seven tractors. The switch to no-till greatly reduced the number of trips across the field and allowed them to eliminate several tractors, and provided huge fuel savings.

Their no-till rig has no-till coulters on the front to open up a slot in the soil. The fertilizer bander, mounted 2 inches to the side, places fertilizer 2 inches deep. The seed opener drops the seed. The closing wheel has adjustable spiked poly wheels so they can be flexible based on soil conditions.

Until 2005 they used Terraclor to reduce disease problems, but went to Avicta seed treatment, which has helped manage some of the soils that have high nematode counts.

To further offset nematode problems that likely resulted from too many cotton crops on the fertile Coastal sandy soils, the Haddocks began cleaning up some of their worst nematode-infested land by lengthening the rotation, growing more soybeans and corn between cotton crops. The natural approach helped as much as the new products in reducing nematode numbers, according to Mike Haddock.

“Crop rotation is a good thing,” says Timmy Haddock, “but on some land cotton behind cotton year-after-year works just fine. We have 600 acres that have been planted to cotton every year since we started growing it, and it’s still some of our best cotton land.”

In 2007, they planted 450 acres of corn, 450 acres of soybeans and 900 acres of cotton. Of the three crops, cotton leaves the least residue.

Though prices played a role in going to half corn and soybeans and cutting back cotton acreage, another purpose was to reduce wind erosion and clean some of their fields that have had consistent nematode buildups over the past few years.

“We rent land from 50 different landowners. Many of those leases go back to the 1970s and early 1980s, when we started farming. We do whatever we can to build up the soil and conserve the fertility of the land. By treating rented land just like we treat our own land, we have a good relationship with our landowners and we have excellent land to farm,” Mike Haddock explains.

To prepare land for the next cotton crop, they go back after harvesting, regardless of the crop, with a rotary mower and leave the residue. In late August or early September, McLawhorn does soil analyses. Twenty-one to 30 days prior to planting they apply glyphosate.

Roundup Ready technology, timely application of glyphosate and no-till farming have been a good remedy for weed problems for the Haddocks. “Each year after going to no-till we have seen fewer and fewer weed problems. I am convinced it has to do with not bringing seed up to the surface, like we used to do with conventional-tillage,” Mike Haddock says.

They have planted Roundup Ready cotton varieties since the late 1990s. In 2007, they planted 500 acres of Bollgard Flex II cotton for the first time, with good results. Their other cotton is in straight Roundup Ready varieties. Even with such heavy dependence on glyphosate for burn-back in the spring and for weed control during the growing season, they have seen little evidence of glyphosate resistance.

Part of that, they believe, comes from switching to no-till about the same time Roundup Ready technology became available in the late 1990s. They also selectively rotate other herbicides to reduce the likelihood of resistance problems.

“Because of the drought this year, some of our cotton didn’t canopy as well as in most years. We saw some spots of Palmer amaranth, but it seemed the land that got the least rain had the most problems.

“We also saw more problems with grass. We’ve watched it closely and looked at some of the problem areas with our crop consultant. It seems the problem is from drought-related poor canopy coverage, not from glyphosate resistance,” Mike Haddock says.

“When we plant, we put down Cotoran, with a shot of Gramoxone to catch anything the glyphosate missed in the burn-down. Because of our labor situation, we have to keep everything simple, so we stick with the Roundup Ready varieties we know work well for us,” Timmy Haddock says.

“We’ve always been hands-on farmers, and other than one hired laborer, we do all the work ourselves. When we got out of the tobacco business, we were able to pick up a large farm that about doubled the size of our operation. We also lost most of our labor, so going no-till was one of few options we had for growing cotton,” Mike Haddock explains.

The Haddock brothers say that going no-till has to be a long-term commitment. “The first three or four years you can take a hit from the switch, but after that, the benefits just keep adding up,” Mike Haddock says.

He points out that no-till fields drain quicker in wet weather and help from a management standpoint by allowing them to get back in the field much quicker than was possible with conventional-tillage.

Planting cotton into no-till cotton, corn or soybean stubble can be challenging. Though they use both a conventional seeder and a vacuum seeder, the key is to pay attention to where seeds are going. In their no-till fields they probably stop the seeder more often than conventional growers, but since going to no-till they have not had a problem with stand.

Typically, they use a starter blend with the planter, usually banding 30 pounds of nitrogen and 20 pounds of phosphorus in a two-by-two pattern. Some of the finer-textured soils in the area tend to fix potassium, and one way to avoid that is to delay application and to broadcast.

During the growing season, the Haddocks depend on petiole analyses by their crop consultant to apply needed nutrients. “We’ve worked with Billy McLawhorn since 1984, and we depend heavily on him for recommendations and try to follow these as timely as we can.”

The past two years they have worked with McLawhorn to use zone sampling to more precisely apply nutrients to areas of the field that need them most. In addition to saving money, reducing the amount of lime and fertilizer has improved the productivity of their land.

The Haddocks are committed to keeping the landscape in harmony with the natural environment. Eastern North Carolina is characterized by drainage ditches that criss-cross farmland. “We are careful to not spray Roundup up to the ditches, so they won’t cave in and further deplete the topsoil,” Mike Haddock notes.

“We inject all our fertilizer into the soil, so it reduces the chances of it getting into streams. Several creeks and a major river run through or near most of the land we farm, and we pay special attention to using more chemicals that are applied in ounces rather than gallons per acre,” Timmy Haddock adds.

Farming and maintaining soil quality and environmental harmony have been a way of life for the North Carolina farmers and going no-till has made them more efficient at it.

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