David Barrett was interested in no-till cotton from the moment he first learned of it. But he was in no rush to be an early adopter of a management tool he could see would obviously require a lot of fine tuning in the field.
So that's why it wasn't until 2007 that he finally planted a portion of the 900 acres of cotton he grew in Northampton County, N.C., using no-till technology.
Why the delay? “I decided to take a wait and see approach and see how well it could be adapted to different soil types,” said Barrett, who manages Ransom Farms of Jackson, N.C., not far from Roanoke Rapids. It's in the Coastal Plain, and most of the cotton land on the farm is silty clay soil close to a river, and Barrett wasn't initially convinced any kind of conservation-tillage was going to be a good choice.
But it's land where inadequate moisture is frequently a problem, so the water conservation aspect of no-tillage and strip-tillage appealed to him.
“We could see that even though you might have to spend a little more on chemicals with no-till, the fact it helps with moisture retention can make up for it,” he said.
So Barrett kept a careful watch on neighboring farmers as they converted from conventional to conservation-tillage, trying to decide when the best time to make the move would be.
“I got a lot of good advice from Terry Boone of Boone Farm Supply (in Jackson), and without his help, it would have been difficult to make the right choice,” said Barrett.
When Barrett finally decided to make the switch, Boone counseled him to go no-till rather than strip-till.
“He didn't want to spend a lot of money on new equipment, and with no-till, he didn't need to buy anything new — he only had to upgrade the machinery he had,” said Boone.
The planter was the main thing, said Barrett. “I had to upgrade it so it could apply starter fertilizer.”
The outlay for strip-till equipment would have been much higher, he said.
Fuel was a big concern, too. “With diesel prices what they are, it looked better to go with no-till, which it takes less fuel,” said Boone.
Barrett also appreciates the better stewardship of the land he gets with no-till because of the organic matter it provides.
He plants wheat or another grain as a cover crop, then burns it down prior to harvest with Roundup. He applies fertilizer on top of the ground and then a starter fertilizer at planting.
“The biggest problem is getting a uniform seed depth,” said Barrett. “It's easier if you have good soil condition with a little moisture. If you plant too shallow, the plant won't come up. If you plant too deep, you won't ever see it.”
The soil in his area has a tendency to “seal,” he said.
Barrett has tried to give his cotton a little help by using the hill-dropping tactic, where you put three or four seed down at once. “It seems to give the plants more pushing power,” Barrett said.
In soils prone to crusting, hill dropping may offer an advantage to drill seeding, confirms Chism Craig, Tennessee Extension cotton specialist. “Two or three seeds per hill have more pushing power than one seed alone. Two to four seeds per hill is customary, but two or three is probably optimum. In some instances, a third or fourth plant per hill can become a ‘weed’.”
The planter and the sprayer are the two most important pieces of technology when a cotton farmer goes no-till. “I use a high clearance sprayer,” Barrett said. “I put a guidance system on it, but that is more for grains than cotton.”
Barrett did himself a favor with his cautious approach to adopting no-till, said Boone. “He was able to take advantage of mistakes other people have made and learn the pitfalls to watch out for,” he said.
One thing Barrett said he has learned about no-till is that it requires a lot more hands-on management. “You need a lot more scouting. And it is not something you can tell a worker how to do and then you go fishing,” he said.
With one year almost under the belt, Barrett said his no-till cotton looked very good late in September. “Some is side by side with conventional, and visibly, it looks like it could exceed the conventional in yield,” he said.