Beltwide panel farms to beat of different drummer

It's time to try something different — a new variety, a new irrigation method, a different row configuration, perhaps ultra-narrow-row (UNR) cotton. Something, anything to reduce costs or bump yields.

That's the philosophy of Daniel Burns, a California cotton producer who's trying a planting configuration called California UNR cotton.

“We grow 1,500 to 2,000 acres of cotton every year,” said Burns of Dos Palos. “We're trying to figure out ways to save ourselves a little money. Four years ago, we tried this California ultra-narrow-row cotton.”

The system consists of two rows of cotton planted 7.5 inches apart on a 30-inch bed. Burns planted about 550 acres to the double-row 30-inch configuration, California's answer to UNR cotton.

“We're trying to get away from conventional practices and cultivation,” Burns explained. “With the market being as low as it is in cotton, we can't keep going in the same direction.”

Burns noted that over the last four years, “we have seen anything from an 8 to a 15 percent increase in yield with UNR cotton. Plus, we've actually saved a few dollars. It usually adds up to around $60 per acre.”

Burns will go into further detail about California UNR cotton during a panel discussion on the impact of cultural practices during the 2002 Beltwide Cotton Conferences in Atlanta, Jan. 8-12, and again in an afternoon workshop.

The panel includes Burns and other growers “who go to the beat of a different drum,” said Anne Wrona, manager, cotton agronomy and physiology, at the National Cotton Council. “So for all growers in the audience, here's an opportunity to learn about people who stick their necks out to try new things.”

One thing that all cotton producers will find interesting about Burns' approach to UNR cotton is that the configuration allows him to harvest with a spindle picker, thereby avoiding an automatic discount for stripper harvested UNR cotton.

“We haven't had any problem with ginning or quality,” Burns said. “When I take my cotton to the gin, my ginner doesn't know if it's conventional or UNR cotton. He can't tell the difference.”

Perhaps the biggest benefit of the conferences is the opportunity for cotton producers to learn from the mistakes of innovators like Burns. Each grower on the panel has been through the growing pains associated with implementing a new technology and can share his solutions with attendees at the conference.

For example, Burns solved the challenge of how to plant UNR cotton by going to a double-row peanut planter.

“Two heads are better than one,” Wrona added. “Cotton producers get to listen to veterans of new techniques who are going to be very frank about their experiences — they'll tell you what works and what doesn't work.”

Nobody believed that Hartsville, S.C., cotton grower Gill Rogers would be successful with center pivot irrigation. The doubters included Rogers himself.

“I was very hesitant about it,” he said. “And there were a lot of naysayers around because a lot of people had done well without irrigation. But most were looking at it as an insurance policy. I looked at it as more of a tool.”

The result was that Rogers got a head start on irrigation in the region. And it wasn't until drier weather started affecting cotton in the Southeast that other cotton producers started showing some serious interest in the practice.

By then, Rogers was discovering that irrigation was only one of several factors in high yields. “A lot was happening when we were putting in irrigation. We started doing less tillage and using more Roundup. And we starting raising our yield objectives. Water was the limitation at first. Once we got that solved, we moved on to the next limiting factor.

“To get high yields, you have to do everything right,” Rogers explained. “It goes back to your agronomic practices of high fertility, good rotation and good drainage.”

The initial challenge for Rogers, who has 1,500 acres under mostly center pivot irrigation, was finding information on how to make irrigation work, “and financing was a bit of a problem.”

Then he struggled through a number of equipment and mechanical problems. “We had ruptured pipelines, lightning strikes three or four times in one season, and engine problems, and we had the wrong size suction strainers. Those things took time to work through.”

How did he solve the lightning strike problem? Lightning arresters helped, “but frankly, we just learned how to fix them. The damage is usually fuses and switches.”

All the changes and fine-tuning are finally starting to pay off for Rogers. “It hasn't been easy. But we obtained the yields we hoped we would obtain this year.”

Considering drip irrigation? You'll hear from growers who like it, but you might want to listen to what Rogers has to say. “We thought it would be our salvation, but it has not paid for itself.”

Other growers on the panel include Jerry Rovey, Buckeye, Ariz., who will discuss irrigation and conservation tillage, and Jerry Hoelscher, Midland, Texas, who'll talk about skip-row cotton.

Another panel member, Jay Hardwick, a cotton producer from Newellton, La., “uses many different varieties, conservation tillage, precision agriculture. You name it, Jay has tried it,” Wrona said.

While the morning panel will focus on a general overviews from each of these growers, there'll be an afternoon workshop where each grower will go into more depth about his cultural practices and invite questions from the audience.

The 2002 Beltwide Cotton Conferences will feature several other panel discussions as well, noted Wrona, who puts together the program for the annual event.

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