Corn/cotton rotation reaps steady, high yields

Herrick Norcross is a fifth generation farmer from Tyronza, Ark., with a simple goal in mind — making sure there is a sixth generation of Norcrosses from Tyronza, Ark.

This is one reason the cotton, corn, milo, rice and soybean producer went to a no-till, corn/cotton rotation in 1997.

“After the fall of 1996, my five-year average cotton yield was approximately 730 pounds per acre,” said Norcross, who spoke during an innovative grower panel at the 2005 Beltwide Cotton Conferences in New Orleans. “There were also a lot of fluctuations in yield from year to year, with a high to low range of almost 500 pounds. Most of my fields were irrigated, but to be successful, I had to do a better job.”

In 1997, he started working toward a no-till, corn/cotton rotation on one field, going with one year of corn followed by two years of cotton. “I was hoping to find an edge. I had a little experience with no-till soybeans, but had never grown corn or no-till cotton.”

The rotation seemed like a good fit for Norcross because planting time for corn would not interfere with his cotton planting. Second, his corn would work on cotton row spacing, so he didn’t need any additional planting equipment. Third, the corn could be harvested earlier, which meant his picker crew could handle harvest before the cotton was ready.

Norcross set three goals with the no-till rotation: increase cotton yields, stabilize yields, and decrease expenses by going to no-till.

He took a big step toward meeting his first goal after the second year of the program. “In 1998, following my first corn crop, my first cotton field yielded a personal record of 950 pounds. Yield dropped in the second year of cotton. I went back to corn in 2000 and then in 2001, I set another yield record of 1,040 pounds.

“This past season, I set another high yield record of a little over 1,300 pounds, even after 15 inches of rain had fallen on it. The increase in yields is fairly typical of all my fields in this rotation. All my fields following corn in 2004 averaged 1,275 pounds.

Eight years after he started the program, he’s raised his overall average yield over the most recent five-year period to 970 pounds.

He’s also been moderately successful meeting his second goal of stabilizing yield, with annual yield averages over the last five years ranging from 900 pounds to 1,125 pounds. That’s a 225-pound yield range versus the 500-pound yield range he was getting prior to the rotation.

Norcross says there’s more to the increase in yields than the rotation program and no-till. “Variety improvements have helped, too.”

Norcross’ third goal of decreasing costs “is harder to measure, but I believe that no-till has allowed me to cut expenses. I’ve seen a significant reduction in the hours I’ve put on my tractors. I burn less diesel fuel and spend less on repairs.”

Norcross estimates that with no-till, he’s reduced the number of hours put on tractors by 35 percent versus conventional-till. “I’ve eliminated one full-time employee while keeping my acres the same.”

Norcross plants Roundup Ready corn and cotton in the rotation, but the Roundup Ready corn “is really just a matter of self defense. It protects me from any drift problems with glyphosate.”

However, he tries not to use glyphosate on corn during the growing season, going with only conventional corn herbicides once the crop has emerged.

“By using conventional herbicides in-season, I can give the field a rest from year after year of continuous glyphosate. Maybe this will allow me to head off any resistant weed problems that could occur.”

In the cotton years of the rotation, “I do go with more of a glyphosate-based program, although in the past few years, I have been using materials with a residual benefit in conjunction with glyphosate. This past season, I had good weed control success in my cotton with Envoke and Sequence.”

Since beginning the rotation, Norcross has seen an improvement in overall health and fertility in his fields. “Organic material has been rising. While I still put out mixed fertilizer, the requirements are more along the lines of a maintenance application rather than heavy applications of potash and phosphate.”

Norcross applies 32 percent nitrogen solution to his cotton in a split application. “Ideally, the timing for me is one application before or right after the crop emerges, with a second application at pinhead square.”

Insect pressure in no-till is heavier, notes Norcross. “With the residue from the corn and the no-till, we have to be sure to do something for cutworms — usually behind the presswheel. Thrips can also be a problem, so I go with a seed treatment. If I don’t, I could have problems with delayed maturity later in the season.”

Plant bugs have also become a major problem for Norcross, an impact that might be related to the corn/cotton rotation. “I don’t know if the corn is acting as a host and the populations are building there, but we have to spray over and over again for them.”

Norcross says the no-till, corn/cotton rotation “is not perfect and every year, I try to do something different to make it better. It’s an evolving process. But it is helping me become a better cotton producer.”

Norcross seeks advice from other farmers who are running similar production programs “to see how they are handling their problems. I work closely with my crop consultant to see what is working and what isn’t. We review every year and decide what to do for the coming year.

“Our county Extension has also been a valuable source of information. Without their help and others, I don’t think I would have had the success with this program.”

e-mail: [email protected]

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