Growing three-bale per acre cotton is a chore anywhere, but to do it as far north as cotton is grown in the U.S. takes some special planning and a little luck from time to time.

Jon Black, who grows 2,300 acres of corn, soybeans, wheat and cotton near Roxbury, Va, averaged 1,320 pounds per acre on one 400 acre farm, with some fields on that farm topping three bales per acre.

He grows 700 acres of cotton, 300 acres of corn, 1,000 acres of wheat and wheat/soybean double-crop. “We plant soybeans into wheat straw no-till, harvest that in the fall and it is left as our no-till mulch. That's the reason we have 1,000 acres of wheat and soybeans to correlate with the 300 and 700 acres of corn and cotton,” he says.

Over 95 percent is in no-till, with better than 90 percent in continuous no-till systems for more than 10 years. Unless he has new ground or some unusual soil or weather conditions, the Virginia grower says everything is no-till.

Black was born into farming. His father, John Black, grew up in central Virginia and farmed for many years in the area. Now semi-retired, John, helps his sons Jon and Keith work the farm. With double-cropping systems on nearly half their land, the three Virginia farmers plant and harvest about 3,000 acres of crops per year.

A firm believer in conservation and in need of any labor-reducing farm practices, Black began no-till farming in the mid 1970s. “We started with soybeans behind wheat and corn, but we always worked the wheat land out. In the late 1980s, we went all the way with no-till on full-season soybeans and corn,” he recalls. By the mid-1990s they began experimenting with no-till wheat and subsequently went to no-till systems on virtually all their land.

“When we first started growing cotton, we used a subsoiler to break the hardpan, then used a strip-till rig to prepare the land,” Black says. “For the first several years we grew cotton, we had a ripper and pulled a culti-packer behind it — that was the only tillage work we did on our cotton land for years. When we started growing cotton, we got into no-till planting wheat, which really opened up some options for no-till,” the Virginia grower explains.

In central Virginia, Black says by the end of September cotton has grown all it's going to grow because the heat units just aren't there on into October. He defoliates his cotton late September, picks the cotton and cuts the stalks. He then plants no-till wheat. In June, he cuts wheat, then plants no-till soybeans into the wheat stubble.

In this rotation, the past two years he has averaged more than 140 bushels of corn per acre. Last year, on 1,000 acres of wheat, he averaged 80 bushels of wheat per acre. Full-season soybeans topped 40 bushels per acre, though total soybean yields were lower because of late season drought on his double-crop beans.

“Overall, our 700 acres of cotton was probably our best crop last year,” Black says. Roundup Ready cotton varieties have performed well on their farm. “We have tried Liberty Link varieties and really like the idea of having some flexibility, but we haven't been able to get the yields we need from these varieties,” the Virginia growers points out.

An advantage to growing cotton in central Virginia, according to Black, is reduced insect pressure. “We could probably do without Bollgard cotton, but it comes in the better varieties, so we plant it because of that,” he says. “On non-Bollgard containing varieties we spray twice a year for bollworms, once in the first week of August and come back a week later with a second spray. On Bollgard cotton, we only spray one time,” the Virginia grower explains.

A few years back, Black started using a row-sweep planter that has made no-till cotton much more efficient. The row-sweep moves the residual crop trash and mulch out of the way and insures that seed and soil have good contact. Before that, he says, he had trouble getting seed through the inch or so of mulch on no-till land.

“The row sweeps do a good job of brushing the trash out, and you can even set them up deeper to kick a little dirt out. “We plant all our cotton with the row sweeps and usually with other crops,” he says.

Thrips, he contends, is one of the most difficult problems to deal with on cotton in central Virginia. He uses five pounds per acre of Temik at planting, but every year has to come back when cotton is in the early leaf stage with Orthene. Thrips pressure in northern Virginia, he stresses is too high for Temik alone to control the problem.

Early in the cotton cycle, wheat is drying down rapidly, which Black believes produces an ideal environment for thrips to develop. When thrips come out of the wheat stubble, especially on early cotton, both Temik and Orthene are needed to control the problem, Black says.

“If you don't use Temik, you know it,” Black says. “I like the lock and load systems that prevent handling of bags,” he adds. The Virginia farmer will be working with Virginia Tech Cotton Specialist Joel Faircloth to test Avicta Complete Pak, a new thrips and nematode management pesticide. “We picked DeltaPine 434 seed, which is treated with the new material. We are excited to see how it works, because we like to rotate technology whenever we can,” Black says.

Roundup Ready cotton, and the subsequent use of glyphosate herbicides, plus the no-till planting system he uses, has greatly reduced weed pressure. Cocklebur was a big problem before Roundup systems were available. Now, he sometimes spikes Roundup with Staple to control morningglory and other weeds and grasses on which glyphosate provides weak control.

Glyphosate use has clearly made no-till farming easier. For farmers considering no-till farming systems, Black says you have to have ground smooth and level before you go into no-till. When you go no-till, that will be your seedbed for many years, so take the time to get it right.

After three or four years in no-till, it will be hard to mess it up. The ground will firm up, and you will be able to get into a field with tractors and combines and hardly leave a track, Black says. In fields under continuous no-till, you can almost run through water to harvest soybeans and barely leave a track.

“It's good to plant into a dead field — it's important to kill the cover crop at least three weeks ahead of time. We use Roundup most of the time, and sometimes paraquat and a combination of Roundup and 2,4-D,” he says.

Though some contend no-till systems greatly reduce fertilizer use, the Virginia farmer says that has more to do with the soil and the crop, and on his farm, nitrogen use has not been greatly reduced since going to no-till systems. “On our best cotton land, for instance, we put down about 55 pounds per acre of nitrogen, which is probably a little less than on conventional-tillage. If we use any more N our cotton plants get rank and cause problems at harvest time,” Black contends.

cotton, he uses a 10-20-3 or 13-20-3 at 10-12 gallons per acre, applied at planting for a starter fertilizer. Then he broadcast potash and adds additional nitrogen as needed.

Overall, no-till is a lot cheaper than conventional-tillage, the Virginia grower stresses. Time is a critical issue with only three people to work the farm, he says. “We can get 2-3 inches of rain and be back in the field in a couple of days,” he says. “Since we've been going no-till, we haven't gotten our cotton picker stuck in a field — that makes you appreciate no-till,” Black jokes.

Black plants cotton between April 20 and May 5, giving him plenty of time to produce a mature cotton crop and get it picked in September and early October. Black plants in 30-inch rows, which allows him to use corn equipment in cotton.

Few weather problems

In 10 years of cotton, only a couple of times weather has caused significant yield reductions. “The first year we grew cotton in 1995, we had a terrible crop, and it was a really dry year. Now that we have grown cotton a few years, I think we will be better able to manage the drought,” the Virginia grower contends.

“If we can grow cotton no-till this far north in Virginia, farmers in other parts of the country should be able to grow most any crop,” he adds.

There may be one or two growers as far north as Black farms cotton, but he is about as far north as cotton grows. Despite his geographical limitations, the Virginia grower contends growing good crops is more a function of what you do than where you are.

e-mail: rroberson@farmpress.com