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Wide beds keeping costs down for Louisiana cotton producers

When St. Joseph, La., cotton producers Donnie and Darrell Vandeven converted their cotton, corn and soybean operation from an 8-row to a 12-row configuration a couple of years ago, they did not have to sell their fleet of 150-horsepower tractors.

One reason was that they went to a 76-inch wide-bed on all crop acres, which actually reduced the number of gangs on their hippers from eight to seven. Donnie spoke about the conversion during the Conservation Systems Cotton and Rice Conference, in Tunica, Miss.

Donnie first saw the wide-bed concept in south Louisiana. “I know some farmers down there rotating sugarcane and soybeans on wide beds. So it's hard to say it's a completely original idea. But we had never seen anyone try to grow cotton on a wide bed.”

In 2003, they tried the wide-row concept on about 100 acres. “Darrell came up with the idea to remove every other gang on our hipper and run a wide-bed test. We tried it on our 8-row pattern on about 100 acres. We farmed it that way for a year to evaluate it.

“Throughout that year, we learned a lot. We encountered some problems, but we also started seeing the other benefits. So we found a way to make it work on a 12-row system.”

Today, the system is used on 6,000 acres, including 3,000 acres of cotton, 1,500 acres of corn and 1,500 acres of soybeans. The furrows are on 76-inch centers but row spacing is still on the old 38-inch centers. “We took it a step further on the soybeans, adding a third row of soybeans on top of the bed. With this we have the benefit of narrow rows on 19-inch rows and having them on a raised bed.”

They left two rows between the duals on the tractors as single beds to accommodate the duals. Those single rows also serve as guides for tractor drivers. “Being on the wrong row is never a problem,” Donnie said. “Also, it's easier to hold implements such as planters on the row with the big, flat beds.”

The biggest benefit of wide-rows is that the Vandevens are still using the same 150-horsepower tractors they were using with 8-row equipment “because our hippers have only half as many gangs. It's actually a lower draft requirement than our old 8-row hippers.”

There are other benefits to the wide-row system. “We used to plant narrow-row, 19-inch beans on flat ground while our cotton and corn were planted on raised beds on 38-inch centers. So every fall, we had to convert 1,500 acres of flat beans to bedded ground and vice versa.

“It takes an average of four trips to accomplish the switch, so we were doing about 12,000 acres of tillage each fall, which was an expensive part of our bean program. That has now been eliminated and it's allowed us to go to more true no-till. It's now possible for us to wait until spring to make decisions about what is to be planted where.”

The wide-bed works real well with furrow irrigation, noted Vandeven. “A lot of people have gotten to the point where they water every other middle, but you still have water soaking over into the other middles and the entire field becomes waterlogged. Then you get a rain and you're over-saturated.

“With these wide beds, you're not super-saturating the entire field, so you can water faster and get your water shut off faster for more fuel savings, and be able to water more acres from a single well.”

The Vandevens don't cultivate the wide bed, but “we're still able to use a layby rig. Our hooded sprayers work fine and we still use our High Boys for glyphosate and insecticide applications.”

The wide bed remains stable through the season, according to Vandeven. “If we build a bed 6-inches tall this fall, next fall after harvest, we'll still have a 6-inch tall bed. It doesn't erode nearly as much as a conventional bed. The shoulders of the bed do get rounded, particularly on the sandier soils, and will actually get grooves from washing off the sides of the bed.”

To fix the latter, the Vandevens use a Brandt ridger roller, “which puts a little dirt back on the shoulder and firms it up all at one time. On 50 percent of our acres this fall, we did nothing, and on the other 50 percent we ran the ridger roller.” The roller is typically run after harvest.

“The only time we disturb the beds is when we get into an extremely wet harvest situation, where we rut a field up so bad that we have to destroy the beds and start over. But hopefully, this won't happen too often.”

The Vandevens suggest that the pattern not be used on rolling type land that would tend to wash gullies in the middles. “Keep in mind that each middle is now handling twice as much water.”

The Vandevens knife their fertilizer into the top of the wide bed creating another advantage. “Since the water runs down the middles, we're seeing a lot less nitrogen loss. That's a big benefit especially with nitrogen at $190 a ton, and the environmental concerns over leaching.

“And if our nitrogen is staying intact, our crop is seeing benefits from that, not running out of fertilizer halfway through the season. I see a yield increase in cotton wide row beds versus traditional beds, which I attribute to better fertilizer retention.”

Last year, over 50 percent of Vandeven's crop was planted to DP 555 BG/RR, “our top performer. We also had a good bit of DP 444 BG/RR, which is a good fit for us because we do a lot of custom harvesting.

“The people we custom harvest for are heavily irrigated,” Vandeven explained. “They grow more of a full-season crop, so anything we can do to shorten our season without a significant yield reduction is a good fit for us.”

The wide beds did require a modification to harvesting equipment, according to Vandeven. “We run duals and invariably we were going to have a dual running on top of a bed which makes the picker lean if one tire is on top of a bed and the other one is not. We put smaller duals on the pickers, and solved the problem. Another benefit from doing that is we reduce the turning radius of the picker. It actually makes them a lot easier to drive.”


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