Organic matter paves way for cotton Thomas Waller has discovered the road to high cotton is paved with organic matter. The soil is pliable 10 to 12 inches below the surface and weeds are easier to handle. And Waller generally feels better about the environmentally and economically friendly route he's taking to produce quality cotton.
The Trenton, N.C., farmer is entering his seventh season of parking the plow in cotton. He farms in Jones County on a wide variety of soil types. In fact, he has never grown cotton conventionally. With the exception of tobacco, he doesn't till his land.
One of the first pieces of advice he'd tell a farmer who's considering the move to no-till cotton is, "You need to get your pH up before you start." Waller tries to keep the pH around 6.0 and is not afraid to put lime out. "If it calls for a half a ton or less, we'll put out 1,000 pounds per acre real quick. We put it out on top of the ground. A proper pH level will help with the stratification of the soil." The proper pH sets the stage for growth; similar to the way a cover crop provides the environment for the crops to grow.
"In no-till farming, residue is one of the most important things you will manage," Waller told a large gathering of farmers at the Southeast Cotton Conference held Jan. 23 in Raleigh. He uses a wheat cover, with no intention of harvesting it, on the cotton land. "You have to take care of the residue, keep it on top of the soil."
With a good residue, the moisture will be there in dry periods and the soil itself will be cool in June and July. The bottom line to that benefit is, "the cotton won't wilt nearly as bad" as when you plant conventionally, Waller says, who rotates cotton with corn and soybeans.
"When it gets hot, you don't lose as much moisture." The mellow soil also means plenty of earthworms, burrowing under the soil. "They help tremendously with water and moisture movement and nutrient uptake throughout the soil. I want to keep all of them out there."
It's barely cracked the books on the second month of the year and Waller is prepared to plant the first or second week in May - with the exception of his burndown activity.
He plants both Roundup Ready cotton and conventional varieties on his Jones County farm. About 30 days before planting, Waller broadcasts a pint of Roundup Ultra and a pint of 2,4-D. At planting he broadcasts a combination of Gramoxone and Cotoran.
Seed population and depth is basically the same in no-till and conventional-tillage systems. "We plant cotton a half inch to three quarters inch deep," Waller says. "We don't measure the residue. We measure the soil. You go down in the soil and scrape off the residue and measure it from the top of the soil."
Waller plants his no-till cotton the first week of May, possibly into the second week of the month. "We use a fungicide when we plant," he says. "I feel like it's good insurance. You want to get that plant up and going as soon as possible."
To take care of early season insect problems, Waller applies four pounds of Temik in the row at planting. As soon as the crop emerges, he'll spray a pint of Roundup over-the-top of the Roundup Ready cotton and follow that with a second application 10 days later. "That will normally keep it clean until we get ready to go back in with our hooded sprayer and put down Caparol and MSMA, directed and in the middle of the rows." The beauty of the no-till system is underscored when he applies Pix with a wick bar, nitrogen at layby and broadcast applications of Caparol and MSMA - all in one trip.
On his FiberMax cotton, Waller bands Staple and MSMA over-the-top, followed by a directed spray of Cotoran and MSMA under the row with Roundup Ultra in the middles under hoods. Caparol or Bladex and MSMA are applied to clean up any escaped weeds.
Just as important as the weed-control program is the speed of the sprayer. Waller runs his sprayer at 5.5 mph. Faster speeds may require you to bump up your rates, Waller points out. At 5.5 mph, he's able to keep his burndown rates to a pint.
Weeds, however, aren't a problem in no-till, Waller says. "A lot of folks you talk to are just scared to death about weed control in no-till cotton. But when you stop cutting the soil, the weeds won't come up. We've had much easier weed control now than when we were cutting the land."
In a no-till system, fertilizer placement is another important aspect to consider. "We mainly band our nitrogen and phosphorous close to the row according to soil test recommendations," Waller says. "We go two inches over and two inches down." At layby, Waller injects nitrogen. Billy McLawhorn, Waller's consultant, makes in-season recommendations for nitrogen based petiole samples.
Waller's equipment needs in this system are simple. He uses a single 25-wave coulter in front of the double disk openers on a John Deere 7200 vacuum planter. After trying rubber and cast iron closing wheels, he's installed spoked closing wheels. He also uses down pressure springs, which allow his gauge wheels to operate separately in case he hits a bump. He uses sprayers with the new air induction tips to cut down on drift near sensitive crops such as tobacco. On the hooded sprayers, he's added coulters and a wick bar on the front.
"No-till is not hard, it just takes a little planning," Waller says. "It's a learning experience. You'll learn something every year that you'll need to change or refine. You need to be ready to adapt and change. What works perfectly on my farm may not work on yours.
"The biggest part of the system that we really like is, we're taking better care of our land and we're having more time to manage," Waller says.
EDITOR'S NOTE - In January, Thomas Waller was the recipient of the Farm Press High Cotton Award for the Southeast region.