Three cotton growers during the online Beltwide Cotton Conferences in January discussed soil management practices they implement on their farms for healthy soil.
Cover crops, poultry litter
The first panelist, Nick McMichen, is a fifth-generation cotton farmer from Centre, Ala., and was also the 2018 High Cotton award winner.
"We farm in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, so we farm a multitude of different soil types from heavy clay to rocky soil to Alluvial soil along the river," McMichen said. "We do grid sampling on two and a half acres because our soils are so variable. We also farm in three counties, one in Georgia and two in Alabama."
Most of McMichen's crop is cotton, but he also farms corn, peanuts, soybeans and wheat.
"I like to say I grow other crops to make me a better cotton farmer," he said.
"The common denominator for growers is the need for healthy soil. If you don't look after the soil, it's not going to look after you."
McMichen takes a proactive approach to soil health.
"We've been completely no-till since 1998," McMichen said. "We implement cover crops, and we rotate them every three years. We use a heavy rye for the biomass as well as tillage radishes, but we still are experimenting with all different types.
"Cover crops are commonly termed the poor man's irrigation. We do have some irrigation, but we don't have irrigation in all fields depending on the size. With cover crops, you're gaining multiple benefits to the soil such as increased organic matter as well as added weed control."
In the fall, he sows the cover crops with a vertical tillage tool, and in the spring, the cover crop is sprayed, rolled, and crimped before the crop is planted directly into it.
"Exploring the mechanics of soil health is of great importance to us," he said. "Soil health practices are helping us to be more successful and keep us in the cotton business."
By focusing on soil health practices in the least productive parts of a field, McMichen increases productivity across the field.
"We want to be as productive as the highest production part of the field, so by getting a broad picture, it helps us to know what to do to help the soil," McMichen said.
"We are big proponents of using poultry litter. Poultry litter is a hundred percent natural, and there are components in poultry litter that cannot be bought from commercial fertilizer."
McMichen generally applies two and a half tons for blanket coverage of poultry litter every year.
"By doing this, it has kept our fertility levels at an adequate state, but in studying the grid samples, we can identify the different nuances we need to finetune in the process," he said. "Accordingly, we may adjust the rate some. Remember, everything starts with the soil."
Pulling nitrogen rates back
Mead Hardwick, the second panelist, is a partner in Hardwick Planting Company along with his brother, father, and mother in Newellton, La.
"I am a fourth-generation cotton farmer in northeast Louisiana," Hardwick said. "Two big aspects of our farm are minimum tillage and cover crops. We can't quite go no-till because of the amount of rainfall we get, but we do well with minimum tillage."
Hardwick does soil testing and full variable-rate fertility to apply only what is necessary for the crop for the upcoming year. He said nutrient management has helped them to not need as much nitrogen applied as they once did.
"Where we have extensive cover crops, good water infiltration, and better organic matter, we're seeing better yields, especially in cotton as well as corn," he said. "We're constantly pulling nitrogen rates back, and we're seeing the difference more significantly in cotton than any other crop."
This year, they put down about 80-90 pounds of nitrogen to produce almost a 1,300-pound crop.
"Just in the last couple of years, we started grid sampling," Hardwick said. "We've gone full variable rate with our P and K macronutrients, and we're able to put those out in the fall. Then we reshape our beds with the cover crop, and we know those nutrients are going to still be there in the spring when we're ready to plant our crop."
Practices over products
From the panhandle of Texas, R.N. Hopper is a third-generation cotton farmer from Petersburg, Texas, which is about 40 miles northeast of Lubbock.
"We grow cotton, corn, and wheat and have utilized no-till production practices since 2006," said Hopper, the third panelist. "We rotate to bring a lot of diversity in our systems, and we utilize cover crops. For us, conservation has been its own reward, and it's led to reduced input costs and higher yields. It's allowed us to continually do more with less."
Hopper said there are no substitutes for good practices.
"A lot of times people tend to lean heavily on products, but products are not practices," he said. "Products are sometimes useful and sometimes helpful, but practices are what builds soil health, not products."
One of the practices that Hopper is getting started with on a large scale is pasture cropping.
"We have a field where we planted a summer dormant, winter perennial," he said. "Once it is established, we hope to be able to pasture crop that in ultra-wide row cotton to try to shift away from cover crops into more of a permaculture approach."
Hopper added to a couple of topics McMichen and Hardwick discussed.
"I liked what Nick McMichen was talking about with building up the weaker parts of the field," Hopper said. "A lot of people try to strengthen and enhance the strongest parts of the field and then pull back the resources on the weaker parts of the field.
"However, cotton is unique in that it doesn't always respond positively to inputs. I think McMichen's strategy in identifying the problem areas and lifting the production on those is a much better approach.
"As Mead Hardwick said, we're also not using near as much nitrogen as we once did. We've been on a journey to eliminate the use of nitrate fertilizers. We still use AMS among other things, such as compost and ammonium sulfate. The first nutrient a farmer typically reaches for is nitrogen, but needing more nitrogen is rarely the solution."