For years, farmers who planted no-till were said to be “farming ugly.” But nothing about the soil and water-conserving and cost-reducing practices of no-till or reduced-tillage is ugly for the winners of this year’s High Cotton awards.

The five winners of the 2008 High Cotton awards program, sponsored by Farm Press Publications through a grant to The Cotton Foundation, each have adopted reduced- or minimum-tillage to fit their particular farming environments.

And each believe reduced-tillage practices are helping them take better care of the soil and water on their farms for themselves, for their families and the neighboring communities.

“Farmers are the original environmentalists,” says Hembree Brandon, editorial director of Southeast Farm Press, Delta Farm Press, Southwest Farm Press and Western Farm Press. “They and their families have the most to gain by protecting their soil, water and the environment where they live.”

“This year’s winners represent the best of the environmental ethic displayed by so many of our farmers. We are proud to be participating in the honoring of these growers in partnership with The Cotton Foundation.”

The 2008 High Cotton winners are:

• Mike and Timmy Haddock, Trenton, N.C., representing the Southeast;

• “B” Lindsey, Caldwell, Ark., the Mid-South;

• Clint Abernathy, Altus, Okla., the Southwest.

• “Sonny” Hatley, Scottsdale, Ariz., the Far West.

(They and their families will be honored at a breakfast at the Beltwide Cotton Conferences in Nashville, Tenn., Jan. 10. Co-sponsors of the program, who will also be honored, include Ace Pumps, Americot/Nexgen, Beltwide Cotton Cooperative; Delta & Pine Land Business, ETIGRA, Farm Credit System, Helena Chemical, John Deere, Syngenta, U.S. Borax and WinField Solutions (A Land O'Lakes company.)

The Haddock brothers said they found no-till was the only way they could offset the cost of labor, equipment, pesticides, fuel, and fertilizer after they began growing cotton in 1990, they said.

Although cotton has been king in many parts of the Southeast, it hadn’t been grown in the Haddocks’ part of eastern North Carolina for nearly 50 years. The brothers grew up on a tobacco farm, left farming when they became adults but decided to come back to it in the 1970s.

They said the economics of switching from conventional-tillage to no-till became evident after growing a few crops of cotton, which they had not seen growing until one of their Jones County neighbors tried it in 1988.

“That first year we got a half inch of rain between May 18 until the second week in August, which is much like our crop this year,” said Mike Haddock. “We made a little over 600 pounds per acre. After that first crop was ginned, we felt if we could make 600 pounds of cotton with no rain, imagine what we can do when we do get rain?”

They gradually reduced their tillage trips, going from 21 trips that first crop down to a handful currently.

Lindsey, this year’s Mid-South winner, says the trick to keeping cotton production profitable for his farming operation along northeast Arkansas’ Crowley’s Ridge is keeping those good soils on the farm.

Most years, Lindsey is concerned with sheet erosion from water leaving the ridge, a geologic structure rising several hundred feet above the landscape. “If you farm close to Crowley’s Ridge, then you are going to have a continuous battle with soil erosion, not necessarily because the slope is so bad, but because you get so much water from the 3- and 4-inch rains that come in an hour or an hour-and-a-half,” he said.

Lindsey has installed dozens of drop pipes and drop inlets on the farm, including several V-shaped terraces around 21-inch drop pipes to hold water longer and facilitate flow into the drop pipes. He’s also built berms to divert water into ditches to keep it from washing through the fields.

Lindsey has been sowing wheat cover crops on land prone to erosion. “You have to take care of your soil,” Lindsey explained. “My philosophy goes all the way back to when my father farmed this land. He always used vetch and Australian winter peas to build the land back up.”

Lindsey minimum-tills much of his cotton, bedding up over the existing row after cutting stalks. “On some fields, we go full-tillage, depending on the situation. It’s not hard with 12-row equipment. You can get it done so fast.”

Southwest winner Clint Abernathy plants about one-third of his family’s irrigated cotton no-till, using minimum-tillage practices on the remainder because of the need to create and maintain water furrows for furrow irrigation.

But conservation-tillage works well with drip irrigation and center pivots. “The only problem we’ve had the last few years with no-till in irrigated fields is volunteer cotton. We’ve had to cultivate to get rid of it. Other than that, we’ve not plowed it.”

He says 95 percent of his family’s dryland cotton is no-till, and he uses minimum-till on about 5,700 acres of wheat. He plants some cotton right behind the wheat combine, using the wheat stubble to hold soil and moisture and to protect cotton seedlings from blowing sand.

Most farmers in Arizona and California still till their soils conventionally, but Far West winner Sonny Hatley has modified his production practices to try to keep peace with his “neighbors.”

A 45-year veteran of Texas and Arizona agriculture, Hatley literally farms in a fish bowl surrounded by millions of urbanites and governed by state and tribal government regulations in the Phoenix area.

Arizona air quality/dust regulations are some of the most stringent in the nation. “If the dust starts blowing toward 101 and Scottsdale, we have to shut down tractor operations. But that does not happen too often,” he said.

One reason for that is Sonny and his son and partner, Adam, cultivate far less now than they once did with all their acreage in herbicide-resistant cotton varieties. Roundup Ready technology has eliminated the need for pre-plant herbicides, resulting in not only less dust, but also production cost and trip savings.

“We used to cultivate maybe six times a season,” says Hatley. “It costs at least $10 per acre ever time we drive a tractor through the field. Now we cultivate just once and that to basically make good irrigation furrows early in the season.

“We dry plant everything and irrigate every other row so we can get around with the first two herbicide applications in a timely manner.”

In prior years, Hatley treated cotton with insecticides every 14 days or as many as eight time per season. Last year only two-thirds of his acreage was treated for any pest and it was whitefly. “At most, we will spray maybe once per year thanks to Bt cotton,” said Adam Hatley.

That is even more important, since the tribe no longer allows aerial applications on his farm.

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