When the time came for the Sneed farming operation to purchase a new cotton picker, Ray Sneed convinced his brothers, Terry, Barry and Marvin to buy a new John Deere 9996, six-row picker equipped with PRO-12 Vari-Row System (VRS) picking heads.

The units, which can harvest 15- to 40-inch rows, also fit new 9970 and 9986 cotton pickers and retrofit 9970, 9976 and models built since 1997.

The Millington, Tenn., cotton producers saw the purchase as an opportunity to shift about 40 percent of the farm’s cotton acreage to 15-inch row spacing with the remainder in 30-inch cotton.

“I’ve always looked at 15-inch cotton as a high yielding practice. But we can reduce weed control costs too, through quicker canopy closure,” Sneed said. “Everybody who plants 10-inch (UNR) cotton and stripper-harvests it really likes the benefit of letting the cotton take care of your weed problems. If we can get the benefits of UNR cotton and not take a discount because of bark, then it’s a win-win situation.”

Sneed hopes a quick-closing canopy and a Prowl application prior to planting will limit his weed control to one over-the-top application of Roundup at the fifth true leaf. The producer would eliminate a layby run through the field with hoods. “We’ll use Staple or Envoke for any escapes.”

Sneed says the shift to 15-inch cotton is not a radical change for him. “Some people are set up on 38s and have to have a separate planter for 15-inches. I’m already set up to plant 15-inch soybeans. This fits our situation perfectly. All I had to do was add the concept.”

Before last season, the Sneeds purchased a John Deere 1790 Central Commodity System planter, which will plant 31, 15-inch rows or 16, 30-inch rows. The planter has two large hoppers with a combined capacity of between 70 bushels and 100 bushels. It can also plant corn, sweet corn, popcorn, sunflowers, soybeans and sorghum.

To achieve 15-inch row capability, the VRS picking heads are designed with an integrated feeding and cutting mechanism on the front, right-hand side of the unit. The system is synchronized with the harvester’s picking speed, and this allows picking of 15-inch row cotton at normal harvesting speeds.

According to Jeff Barnes, an agronomist and crop systems specialist with John Deere, growers have varying reasons for going to 15-inch cotton. “One of our early customers was trying to promote earliness. They had some river-bottom land where they had lost crops to flooding in the spring and the winter. They have seen five to eight days of earliness from 15-inch cotton versus 38-inch cotton.

Sneed believes he’ll achieve a week of earliness, more uniform maturity and more first position bolls, all of which should translate into better quality. He’s hoping to save on scrapping costs as well.

The move to 15-inch spacing will increase his plant population versus wider rows, but not significantly. “I’m planting about 70,000 plants per acre in 15-inch and 60,000 plants per acre in 30-inch cotton.”

Sneed says research shows he can reduce planting population even more in 15-inch cotton without a reduction in yield. He’ll experiment with a lower plant population once he’s more familiar with the practice.

Erosion control is another factor for some growers going narrow, according to Barnes. “On hilly ground, producers see more erosion when they plant wide-row cotton. Fifteen-inch cotton is a way to conserve the soil and maintain the value of the land and hopefully produce greater yield.

“Other growers may have some weaker ground where cotton doesn’t fill the row up on 38-inch rows, and they have difficulties with weed control. This type of system will help them maximize light interception and nutrients.”

Barnes says the VRS heads add about $15,000 to the cost of the picker versus one with traditional heads.

Varieties in Sneed’s 15-inch cotton include ST5242 BR, DP 444 BG/RR, ST 4575 BR, ST 5599 BR and DP 449 BG/RR or DP 445 BG/RR.

If 15-inch cotton doesn’t work out on every field, “that’s fine because the same picker picks 30-inch too,” Sneed added. “But my hope is that 15-inch cotton will be my best practice.”

e-mail: erobinson@primediabusiness.com