It is shortly after six a.m. on a muggy day, threatening rain, as the group gathers on the fringes of the Auburn University campus to observe a unique project.
Referred to simply as “The Old Rotation,” the one acre field includes corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton, and other crops in a project that is the third oldest continuous crop experiment in the world. The cotton study, ongoing for 106 years, is the oldest in the world, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It has been tended by successive generations of Auburn staff from the antebellum era when cotton was king until today, when market dynamics and lethargic prices have the crop's crown somewhat askew.
“When this project was initiated in 1896 by Prof. J. F. Dugger, some 80 percent of the economy of the South was linked to cotton,” says Charles Mitchell of the university's Agronomy and Soils Department, who discussed the project at the Southern Conservation Tillage for Sustainable Agriculture Conference. “It is said that one could travel from Montgomery, Ala. to Atlanta, Ga. and not see a single tree except in creek bottoms.
“It took a toll on the land and the people — much of it was slash-and-burn farming. The destructive practices of nearly two centuries of cotton culture are still evident in the deeply eroded gullies that can be found in various areas of the state.”
Today, though, trees are everywhere along the Montgomery to Auburn highway, but one only occasionally gets a glimpse of cotton. Auburn researchers are still using the Old Rotation to add to their knowledge and to help test and prove new methods and technologies.
Mitchell points to one section of the cotton plots that has never had a single ounce of nitrogen fertilizer nor any cover crop. Other sections have been in continuous cotton, yet others in various rotation schemes. “This is a field laboratory for sustainable agriculture,” he says.
The amazing angle to this story, however, hinges on what's happened in just the past few years.
“For 100 years,” Mitchell says, “these Old Rotation crops were grown under conventional tillage systems. Year-to-year yields were erratic. In 1996, we switched to genetically modified varieties and in 1997 began using conservation tillage for all crops in the project. Not only have average yields increased, but record yields have also been obtained.” Those records included 3 bales per acre for cotton, 236 bushels for corn, 67 bushels for soybeans, and 95 bushels for wheat. And…that record cotton yield was on a plot that had never had anything other than legume N from a cover crop.
While Mitchell notes that other variables are involved, the results nonetheless speak for themselves: “Average yields of all the Old Rotation crops have increased since we went to conservation tillage in 1997.”
The project, he says, “continues to demonstrate Prof. Dugger's theories that sustainable cotton production was possible if growers would use crop rotation and include winter legumes to protect the soil from winter erosion and provide nitrogen for the summer crop.”