Kevin Kemp checks the progress of the notill cotton crop on his east central Mississippi farm

Kevin Kemp checks the progress of the no-till cotton crop on his east central Mississippi farm.

Kevin Kemp's cotton thrives on land untilled for 25 years

"There were some who thought I was crazy, growing cotton on land that hadn't been tilled in probably 25 years. But it's really good land, and crop performance has been exceptional."

Kevin Kemp almost didn’t farm this year. Coming off two straight years when drought devastated yields on his farms in Leake and Winston counties in east central Mississippi, and with the 2016 commodity price outlook none too promising, he thought long and hard about just sitting this one out.

“I only averaged 17 bushels of soybeans per acre in 2015, compared to 40 to 45 bushels in good years, and only got $8.50 for them,” he says. “Where I’d been averaging 1,000 pounds of cotton or better for years, last year’s yield was only around 700 pounds. Throw low prices into the mix, and it was one of those situations where you just want to cry. I had to give some really serious thought as to whether I wanted to risk more money on another crop year with prices the way they were.”

But he had a couple large tracts of rented land on which he finally decided “I’d bite the bullet and plant it to no-till cotton. All the land — 220 acres in one tract and 180 in the other — had been in pasture for 10 years to 12 years before I rented it. All told, there hadn’t been a disk in it for probably 25 years. For the past five years, I had planted both tracts to no-till soybeans.

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“There were some who thought I was crazy, trying to grow cotton on ground that hadn’t been tilled for such a long time. But, it’s really good land,” Kemp said at mid-August, looking across vistas of healthy cotton loaded with bolls. “Otherwise, I doubt I would have done this.”

And he admits to some uneasy moments early on. “There were some patches on hilltop areas that were slow to start growing. They looked absolutely pitiful, like the cotton was just going to sit there and die. I was really worried those areas wouldn’t pick even half a bale.

“But my daddy always told me not to give up on a crop, and sure enough, when the weather warmed, almost overnight it took off growing and it hasn’t stopped since. Overall, crop development has been exceptional. At this point (mid-August), I couldn’t be more pleased with the way the crop looks. I just hope we don’t get any bad weather or other problems to hurt the yield potential that’s there.”

Glyphosate-resistant pigweed/marestail

Aside from the usual benefits of no-till, “I was getting some glyphosate-resistant pigweed and marestail, and needed to rotate the land out of soybeans so I could control those weeds.” Kemp told Dr. Glover Triplett, Mississippi State University research professor of plant and soil sciences, and Dr. Ernie Flint, MSU regional Extension specialist at the Central Mississippi Research and Extension Center, Kosciusko, who were visiting his farm.

Triplett was a pioneer in the development of no-till agriculture in the U.S. — the plots he and Soils Physicist Dave Van Doren launched in 1963 at Ohio State University are still being maintained today, and millions of acres worldwide are now no-till — and Flint, one of Triplett’s students at Mississippi State, has helped Kemp with crop production information and advice.

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“A few years after we started our OSU no-till project,” Triplett says, “people would shake their heads and tell us, ‘Well, you may get by without tillage for a few years, but sooner or later you’re going to have to plow.’ But more than half a century later, those plots are still going, with never any tillage.”

“I got exceptional control of the resistant weeds this year,” Kemp says. “The first glyphosate spray didn’t even faze the pigweed or marestail, but when I came back with Liberty over the top, that took care of them, and I’ve had no further problem with either.”

Rotation into a different crop “can be beneficial in a number of ways,” Triplett says, “including allowing a producer to use different classes of chemistry to control weeds.”

All of Kemp’s cotton is Deltapine DP 1522 B2XF, which allows him to spray Liberty over the top. “The variety was recommended by Helena Chemical Company salesman Mike Bates and by Dr. Flint,” he says, “and I couldn’t be more pleased with how it has performed.”

Weed and insect control measures have been minimal, Kemp says. “I sprayed Roundup for burndown, then followed with a pyrethroid (Asana). It was somewhat cool and wet when I planted, May 5-18. I sprayed once for thrips, and when cotton was 6 inches I sprayed Roundup over the top. That got rid of the grasses, but not the weeds. When cotton was 12 inches, I sprayed Liberty over the top, which cleaned up the weeds, and applied 160 pounds per acre of ammonium nitrate. Lay-by was Karmex/Roundup in the middles to help keep down grasses. Aside from the early thrips treatment, I haven’t had to spray for plant bugs or any other insect.”

He's constantly checking fields

Flint pointed out, “Kevin does his own scouting. He’s constantly in the fields, checking to see what the crop needs, or if there are any trouble spots. He’s really good at spotting insects, and if he thinks a problem may be developing he doesn’t hesitate to call me for advice. He had a few aphids, but a natural fungus took them out.”

Holding up a cotton bloom he’s plucked, Flint points to ants crawling inside. They’re fire ants, and they’re looking for worm eggs and plant bug nymphs. As much a plague as they are otherwise, they’re good beneficials in a cotton crop.”

Kemp applied 40 ounces of Pix to control rankness. He expects to start picking mid-September, after defoliating with a two-shot application of Def and Dropp and Prep to open bolls. If there are no major problems between now and harvest, Flint says after pulling up a stalk and counting bolls, the crop could yield 2.5 to 3 bales. Kemp’s cotton is ginned at Linwood Gin Company, Vaughan, Miss.

Triplett, noting that the lateral roots of the stalk that was removed were fairly near the surface, says with a mulch cover, “You get greater moisture retention near the surface, and roots can more efficiently utilize rainfall that would otherwise run off had the soil been tilled.”

Triplett has dug a spadeful of soil: “No-till can reduce erosion potential 50 to 100 times that of disking and planting into bare soil. Look at the dark, rich layer of organic mater near the surface. And he’s got a lot of ‘friends’ working for him (earthworms). If you feed them with decomposing surface residue, they will work for you.

"Earthworms increase the size of soil pores, which can significantly increase rainfall infiltration. As you double the size of a soil pore, the infiltration rate increases four times. More rainfall infiltrates the soil rather than running off.”

Kemp responds: “No matter where I’ve dug in the fields during the season, I’ve found earthworms at work.”

Four days prior, he says, “We had a 6-inch rain. And there were other rains in the same period. With that kind of rainfall on tilled land I’d have had gullies ankle deep or more. But there has been no detectable gullying anywhere. I’ve had excellent soil infiltration, and runoff has been almost sediment-free.”

Soil loss is minimal in runoff

Meanwhile, Flint, has filled a bottle from water that’s trickling from the field into a nearby ditch. “Look how clear it is,” he says. “There are almost no soil particles in it.”

 “I’ve seen it enough with no-till to know that’s true,” says Kemp. “My late father was one of the first in these parts to move to no-till; he really believed in it. He grew cotton all his life — he and a brother had as much as 1,000 acres scattered all over this county. I guess his love for the crop rubbed off on me; I pretty much grew up in cotton fields. I was checking cotton when I was 16, and I’ve been involved with the crop ever since. I’d rather grow it than anything else.”

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While there are many advantages to no-till production, Flint says, sometimes farmers who switch from conventional tillage to no-till “aren’t aware that no-till requires more management, not less. A successful no-till program requires more attention, and that’s something Kevin has handled well.”

A cover crop this fall/winter could be beneficial on the farms, Triplett suggests. “I’m probably going to do that, most likely with wheat,” Kemp says.

Flint notes that wheat offers more options than rye, “which is hard to get rid of if you’re going to plant corn behind it. Also, with wheat, if the price is good, the grower can let it mature, get income from the grain, and then plant soybeans. Another advantage of planting soybeans into wheat stubble is if you’ve got a bad deer problem — they don’t like to put their noses into stubble, and won’t damage young soybeans the way they would in a no-stubble field.”

While Kemp says he hasn’t had a problem with deer on the farms here, “On some of my Leake County land, they’ve done a lot of damage to soybeans. Wild hogs are also a problem in some areas there.”

Here in the hills where tree farms predominate, Kemp says there aren’t that many areas of open land. “Except for these two farms, I work small patches. This year, in addition to the cotton, I have 370 acres of corn and 360 acres of soybeans. Most of those fields are in fairly close proximity, but these two farms are 32 miles from my house. My brother-in-law, Tim Hobby, has a low boy trailer that I use to transport equipment here. With mostly small fields, I’m pretty much limited to 4-row equipment, so I don’t have a large investment for big machinery.”

Kemp says he also still has a few cows, and for several years he had a 12-house poultry operation, selling his birds to a nearby Koch Foods processing plant. “But I sold six of the houses, and I have a manager for the six I kept. He’s been with me 12 years and does an outstanding job, which frees me to look after the row crops.”

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