Holding Soil
Tommy Butner shows the roots still intact from last year’s corn crop. That corn residue, in addition to the five-species cover crop growing in the row middles, improves soil health, he says, and reduces potential for erosion.

No-till, cover crops, and praying for rain make good cotton

Tommy Butner says no-till, cover crops and praying for rain are keys to a good cotton crop.

Tommy Butner made his best cotton crop ever last year but takes little credit for the accomplishment. “It all depends on the weather,” he says. “I don’t irrigate; I get my water the old fashioned way — I get on my knees and pray for it.”

Prayers were answered in 2017. “We had good rains,” says Butner, who farms in Crockett County, near Halls, Tenn.

He’s adopted some management practices that help him take advantage of the Good Lord’s benevolence. He plants cover crops on about half of the 1,500 acres he typically devotes to cotton. Another 300 acres go to corn or soybeans, whichever offers the best price at planting time, he says.

He’s been strictly no-till for many years. “I have some fields that have been in no-till for 25 years,” he says. And he’s using better varieties than were available just a few years back.

Following a recent dicamba training meeting in Alamo, Tenn., Butner sat down to talk about his operation, including his experience with dicamba.

He planted all XtendFlex cotton last year and used Engenia herbicide to achieve “the best weed control I’ve ever had.” He chose Engenia because at the half-pound label rate he can keep his mandated buffer to 110 feet. At a full pound (maximum label rate for some dicamba products) the buffer must go to 220 feet.

Butner says the system worked well. “I had the cleanest fields I’ve seen in years.” Pigweed is “by far my worst weed problem. We have some resistant pigweed that Roundup doesn’t control.”

He adds that before dicamba was available as an over-the-top treatment for cotton, pigweed “had gotten really bad. We sprayed, we chopped and we chopped some more. Fields were clean last year.”

He planted corn last year but is leaning toward soybeans on that 300-acre alternate crop for 2018, since the market for corn is so bad. If it’s soybeans, he’ll plant dicamba-tolerant varieties.

Depends on cotton

“But I’ll plant mostly cotton. I plant some corn and soybeans, but my main crop is cotton. Cotton just does better.” He says cotton takes more work but will hang on during adverse weather better than either soybeans or corn. “Cotton will fool you,” he says. “Sometimes it will promise you little and give you more, and sometimes it will promise more and give you little. But it will go through dry spells and still make a good crop.”

He plants Deltapine and DynaGro varieties, and says he looks for what makes the best yield. He’s seen a bit of bacterial blight but has not switched tolerant varieties, preferring to stick with what works. He’s also tried fungicide treatments. “I sprayed all my fields with a fungicide last year,” he says. He’s not sure if it made a difference or not.

Cover crops do make a difference, however. “My best field last year was behind a cover crop,” he says. He drove out to one of his fields following the dicamba meeting and showed a cover crop mixture planted between last season’s cotton rows. He mixes wheat, cereal rye, winter peas, some clover, and radishes on 700 acres. “The radishes put down a long root and open up the soil,” Butner says.

Last year was his first experience with the cover crop, and he noticed that a field that had eroded “with little ditches the year before” did not wash with the cover on it. He says the cover crop adds organic matter to the soil and improves water infiltration.

Saving Soil and Money

He also no-tills every acre and has for years. “No-till improves the ground,” he says. “It makes it more mellow.”

He says no-till saves money, requiring less labor, less diesel and less wear on tractors. “I can’t imagine tilling that much land now,” he says. “No-till offers a lot of advantages.”

As he prepares for the 2018 planting season, Butner says the price of cotton is his biggest challenge. He produces an efficient crop but says he still needs at least 70 cents a pound to break even. “I sell it myself,” he adds.

His goal is “to do better than I did last year.” He says even his worst insect, plant bugs, caused little trouble in 2017. The bacterial blight was not a bad problem, but something he’s watching.

He watches costs. “I still harvest with a basket picker,” he says, adding that he can’t justify the expense of a round bale picker and that if he had that much money to invest he’d prefer to buy more land. “Equipment doesn’t appreciate,” he says.

He has two sons, one 23, who is farming 200 acres, and one 18, who will finish high school this spring and would also like to farm. “It’s just hard to find land,” Butner says. He owns about half his acreage and rents the rest. “We have a lot of competition for good farm land.”

He says his youngest son plans on going to welding school after graduation and then “work on the pipeline.” He hopes after a few years he can put together enough acreage to come back to west Tennessee and farm.

Butner understands the appeal. He grew up on the farm and says he never wanted to do anything else. He understands the pull back to the land that he sees in his sons. But he also understands the challenges.

“Weather is the main thing,” he says. “This year we’re starting off with good soil moisture and I just hope it stays that way. I was blessed last year.”

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