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No-till cotton production proves worth

The costs and benefits of using conservation-tillage in cotton production can be calculated a bit more precisely, thanks to teamwork by an Agricultural Research Service (ARS) scientist and his research partner.

Agricultural Engineer James Hanks at the ARS Application and Production Technology Research Unit in Stoneville, Miss., worked with Mississippi State University Agricultural Economist Steve Martin to examine the economic returns for different cotton conservation-tillage practices in the Mississippi Delta.

From 2000 to 2004, the team conducted cotton production field studies using five different management systems. The systems were conventional tillage, no-till, low-till sub-soiling, no-till with a winter wheat cover crop, and low-till subsoiling with a winter wheat cover crop.

The researchers calculated economic costs for each management system. These costs included all direct and fixed production expenses related to sub-soiling, seed preparation, cover crop planting and pre-plant herbicide application. Interest expense, labor and the fixed costs of equipment ownership — based on the full utilization of the equipment — were also included.

Their results suggest that farmers could realize the highest economic return from cotton production using no-till production. This system, which averaged a net return of $1,202 per hectare (2.471 acres), had the lowest production costs because fewer trips were needed across each field for tillage or cover crop plantings.

The low-till subsoiling with a winter wheat cover crop system had the lowest net returns of any of the treatments because of lower yields relative to the other treatments. In addition, the use of cover crops and the added tillage increased production expenses.

This study did not assess the environmental costs and benefits of using cover crops in cotton production, but producers who want to reduce soil erosion might also want to consider using a no-till cover crop management system. This system had the highest mean net return of the two cover crop systems in the study.

ARS is the principal intramural scientific research agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

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