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Wheat/cotton rotation a happy accident in Louisiana

It wasn’t in the original plan, but Gary Williams and Shooter Shaw ended up with an eye-opening wheat/cotton rotation. This year, the rotation did so well, in fact, that they’re unafraid to try it on more acres. And next time the rotation won’t be a happy accident.

The pair farms about 1,300 acres of corn and cotton near Sterlington, La.

Williams — a partner with Shaw in Dollar Cotton — says last year was their first to grow wheat.

“The landowners had 130 corn acres (a 55-acre block and a 75-acre block) of their land leveled. After that, because of a lot of loose dirt, we all thought it was a good idea to put down a cover crop to hold off erosion. That’s where the wheat came in.”

With the wheat only needed to slow run-off, the field — known as “The Pet Cemetery” because it hosts one — was planted with about 80 pounds of seed to the acre, far below the normal seeing rate.

“Normally, the rate is some 120 pounds per acre. And this year, since we’re planting wheat as a crop, it’s going in at that 120 standard rate.

“After leveling, we put out our P and K. That was to take care of cotton we were planning on planting. This year, we’ll be putting out DAP.”

Prior to planting, the pair hipped the land. After planting, they hipped again to throw dirt onto the seed, ran water furrows and left it alone.

The wheat

Last fall the weather around Sterlington was perfect for wheat. The Pet Cemetery had a good stand very quickly. Thoughts that maybe the wheat wasn’t just a cover crop began creeping in.

“Remember, we were looking to burn the wheat down in February and plant corn or cotton,” says Shaw. “But it looked like 100 percent of the seed came up. And as we were watching the wheat, we got more interested because the price kept going up.

“We drove by that field every day. We kept commenting on how good it looked: ‘Looking good! Looking even better! Looks like we planted 140 pounds of seed out there!’”

Encouraged, the Dollar Cotton producers decided in February to hit the wheat with fertilizer and take the crop to completion. They weren’t sure what they’d double-crop with it, though.

“It was amazing, like everything was lined up for us,” says Williams. “The plan was to see how late the wheat came off. If too late, we’d have planted soybeans.”

That option was available because of irrigation availability. “I wouldn’t try this type of double-cropping without irrigation. Without it, it’s (a reckless) roll of the dice.”

Regardless, the wheat — Pioneer 26R61 — yielded 61 bushels per acre. This year, the pair pledges to plant more of that variety.

The cotton

Williams and Shaw began harvesting the Pet Cemetery on May 23 and finished the next day. By noon on May 24, they began burning off the stubble.

“Even after burning, the stubble was a problem,” says Shaw. “It was thick. When we planted we had to run a row-knocker twice to get it out of the way.”

Cotton — DPL445 — was planted on May 25. “We chose 445 because it’s early maturing and (variety trial) data showed yields were comparable to DPL555,” says Williams. It turns out 445 is D&PL’s second most popular variety in Louisiana, behind 555.

It took 4.5 months to finish the double-cropped cotton. The crop was furrow-irrigated three times.

“Let’s just say we were very happy with that result,” says Shaw. “It was completely unexpected because before we picked, it looked like it might bring a bale-and-a-half. The majority of our cotton is DPL555. On our irrigated 555, the yield was 1,200 pounds. Our dryland 555 did 690 pounds. The double-crop cotton was a happy medium at 890 pounds.”

And the pair’s luck didn’t stop. They finished harvesting the 445 at 4 p.m., just beating a 6-inch rain. “Actually, we got lucky during the 2005 harvest too,” says Shaw. “We finished at 5 in the afternoon and (Hurricane) Rita came in just after that.”

Other issues

This fall, Williams and Shaw will plant 420 acres of dryland wheat. They’re not putting any cotton behind it. Of those 420 acres, 300 have been in cotton for two years.

“One thing folks might wonder about — I certainly have — is with all the wheat stubble in the middles should you plow the middles?” says Shaw. “Because we’d just leveled the ground, we had a good slope. But any farmer having trouble moving water down the middles may be better off plowing.”

Williams says as word has filtered out about the wheat/cotton success it has interested other farmers.

“I tell them, ‘It’ll work as long as you have irrigation. If you double-crop, you must have water. I can absolutely say that without irrigation this summer, the (double-cropped) cotton would have burned up. It was too hot. Soybeans would have been in bad shape too.”

While they are able to irrigate, water is a concern around the Dollar Cotton operation.

“Our water is a good set-up but we’ve had more and more trouble over the last couple of years,” says Shaw. “We water off a reservoir, Devil’s Hole, that’s filled in the winter by the Ouachita River. We irrigate about 800 acres out of it.”

Lately, drought has been so intense, the Devil’s Hole has gotten extremely low and threatened to dry out.

“The last two years, we’ve had to back a tractor up to the river — almost put it down a cliff, actually. Then we ran a pump (capable of pulling about 3,000 gallons per minute) to put water back into the reservoir. We’re doing what we (must) to keep up.”


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