Walk Thomas Waller's Trenton N.C., cotton fields and you see clear trends. All of his cotton is no-tilled. You have to look hard to find a weed among conventional or herbicide tolerant varieties. Yields are excellent.
Dig deeper into Waller's records and cotton production philosophy and the profile of an environmentally sensitive, economically conscious cotton grower emerges.
Talk to his neighbors, his county Extension agent and his consultant, and you hear descriptions like: Mr. No-Till in Jones County, dedicated, quiet, thorough, teacher and cooperative.
All of these traits as well as his success as a cotton grower support the selection of Thomas Waller as the 2001 High Cotton winner for the Southeast.
One of the first letters the selection committee received was from Waller's neighbor, fellow cotton farmer Harvey L. Rouse Jr. Farming land adjacent to Waller for 20 years, Rouse and his father have closely observed Waller's farming practices and his success.
"He continually out-yields us, and seems to accomplish it with less equipment, labor and time," Rouse says. "We are fortunate to have Thomas as our neighbor, if for nothing else but to emulate his conservation efforts. He's a true steward of the land and an asset to the farming community. He's a leader and innovator. He is willing to try new and innovative approaches when others sit back and write the process off. Not all have worked, but many have, and to his economic advantage."
Billy McLawhorn, owner of McLawhorn Crop Services Inc. in Cove City, N.C., has worked with and learned from Waller since 1984.
"Over the last 18 years, our consulting company has had the opportunity to work with some of the most progressive growers in eastern North Carolina, but none of them epitomize the qualities you seek in your award more than Thomas," McLawhorn says.
"When we first started working with him in 1984, his questions and concerns frequently centered around such issues as the environmental implications of herbicide choices or the impact of insecticide choices on beneficial insects. In more recent years those concerns regarding water quality and basic integrated pest management issues evolved to include concern for resistance management strategies for both pesticides and bio-engineered cotton. While Thomas is widely regarded as innovative and an early adopter of new technology, he takes the same balanced approach to new ideas that he does to all of his decision making. He seeks to integrate new ways into his existing production system, rather than making drastic changes rapidly," McLawhorn notes.
Jones County Extension agent Curtis Fountain singles out Waller for his emphasis on timeliness in all of his farming operations as well as his efficient use of equipment and labor. Waller was able to adapt his existing equipment to handle no-till cotton. He also monitors all expenses through a well-managed budget.
Sets, tracks budget "Each year Thomas develops a projected cotton budget and closely tracks it during the season. A part of this tracking involves monthly input cost itemization, allowing for previous year same-time period comparisons. The cotton budget allows Thomas to remain focused and disciplined toward managing inputs and their costs. He also prepares an annual cotton marketing plan as soon as projected input costs and cotton prices can be determined. This allows him to implement sound marketing decisions with limited emotional distractions," Fountain says.
Waller is a participant in the FiberMax Cotton Growers Association and a participant in the newly formed Jones County Cotton Gin Marketing Pool. He monitors cotton prices through DTN, monthly Marketing Club Network Teleconferences and various marketing publications.
As his interest in no-till has grown, Waller has sought out assistance wherever it could be found. He has been involved in no-tilled crops since 1985, and all of his acreage, except tobacco, has been in continuous no-till since 1995.
He is currently participating in a five-year North Carolina No-Till Cost Share program that emphasizes 80 percent ground cover throughout the year. He is also participating in a three-year North Carolina Nutrient Management Cost Share Program that promotes proper nutrient rates based on soil tests and proper nutrient application timing. He has participated in a three-year North Carolina Pest Management Cost Share Program promoting integrated pest management. Farming in the environmentally sensitive Neuse River Basin, Waller follows basin-wide best management practices, along with extensive water quality monitoring.
Tommy Benton, retail sales manager for Monsanto, adds his endorsement to Waller's selection as this year's High Cotton Winner. "Thomas has implemented environmental initiatives, even before they became mandatory and made the early switch to minimum/no-till cotton production. He has become a recognized leader and expert in minimum-till agriculture. Thomas has acted as a mentor to many growers and has answered countless questions about his experiences making the switch to no-till cotton production. He has hosted farm tours to share first hand knowledge and experiences with minimum-till, personally demonstrating to his neighbors that it is possible to produce a high quality, profitable cotton crop while utilizing best management practices and maintaining a high degree of environmental responsibility."
Waller is modest about his accomplishments and accurately emphasizes that he is still studying and learning. He worked his way into no-till cotton, starting with only 32 acres the first year. He increased to 125 the next and has continued to increase his acreage. Along the way he has learned what is practical and what is not.
Cover crop valued He still believes in a cover crop to stop wind and water erosion and to protect young cotton seedlings. He no longer plants a vetch cover crop and he doesn't plan to harvest much if any of his wheat cover crop.
"I like to harvest my wheat cover crop," he says. "But, when I delay wheat planting until I've gotten all my soybeans and cotton out of the field, I get in trouble with Hessian flies. I'll still combine some wheat where I put animal waste on it. I plant Hessian fly resistant wheat in those fields. But on most of my cotton land, I'll just no-till wheat as a cover crop with no intention of harvesting it."
Waller plants with a single 25-wave coulter in front of the double disk openers on his John Deere 7200 vacuum planter. He has replaced the rubber closing wheels and the cast iron wheels he later installed with spoked closing wheels. He uses a foam marker instead of a mechanical row marker, eliminating the need for heavy down pressure springs.
Thirty days before he plants, Waller broadcasts a pint of Roundup Ultra and a pint of 2,4-D. As he plants, he broadcasts a combination of Gramoxone and Cotoran. The herbicide combinations assure weed-free fields at planting. He says a thick cover crop mulch on the soil surface greatly reduces grass emergence and eliminates the need for a grass herbicide.
After ripping and bedding his cropland for 18 years, Waller has not ripped any land since he began no-tilling.
Residue over ripper "I think the residue on top of the soil is as valuable as the ripper," he says. "I pull roots from my cotton fields every fall before they start to rot, to make sure my cotton is producing deep, healthy roots under no-till conditions. Since I stopped disking I have not seen any evidence of hardpans. When we quit running the disk is when our soils started looking better."
Waller applies four pounds of Temik in the row at planting for early season insect control. As soon as his cotton emerges, he sprays a pint of Roundup over-the-top of his Roundup Ready cotton. He makes a second application 10 days later. That keeps the fields clean until he lays it by with Caparol and MSMA, both directed and in the row middles. He applies Pix with a wick bar, applies layby nitrogen and broadcasts Caparol and MSMA in one trip.
On his FiberMax cotton, he bands Staple and MSMA over-the-top and follows with a directed spray of Cotoran and MSMA under the row with Roundup Ultra in the row middles, under hoods. He follows with Caparol or Bladex and MSMA to clean up any escaped weeds.
Experience has taught Waller not to rush the planting season in no-till fields.
"I don't plant real early," he notes. "I monitor the soil temperature and look at the weather forecast. I may plant a little cotton in late April, but most is planted the first week of May. I always use a fungicide at planting. I want to do everything I can to assure myself of getting a good stand."