Testing twin-row cotton

GREENWOOD, Miss. -- It seemed like a good idea. Plant two rows of cotton on each seedbed and reap the reward of increased yield without increasing acreage. In reality though, the idea didn't translate into much more than a management headache for Mississippi producers Gary and David Fratesi.

While the system has found fans among some Midwest soybean growers and a select few Southern soybean pioneers, cotton growers do not appear to be experiencing similar benefits.

Intrigued by the idea of twin row cotton, the Fratesi brothers, who together operate Hard Cash Planting Company in Indianola, Miss., offered themselves up as guinea pigs of sorts. Borrowing a Monosem twin-row planter from their local equipment dealer, they offered to put the system to a side-by-side comparison test in a 25-acre field near Morgan City, Miss. All cultural practices were the same for the two planting systems, and conventional tillage was used across the entire field.

Gary Fratesi says simple curiosity led him to try the dual-row cotton planting system. "We were looking for a yield increase, and we were interested to see how this system would compare to our conventionally planted cotton. We liked how the planter is calibrated to drop the seed."

The field was planted May 9 in 38-inch beds in sets of eight, with a set of eight beds with a single row of cotton per bed followed by a set of eight beds with two rows per bed.

In the single-row beds, an eight-row planter hill drops three seeds every 10.8 inches for an average seed spacing of one seed per 3.6 inches.

The dual row planting system consists of a 16-unit, eight-row planter with two units per bed, spaced 8 inches apart. Each unit is set to drop one seed every 7 inches, for an average seed spacing of one seed per 3.5 inches. In this planting system, the cotton plants are staggered about 8 inches apart in a zigzag pattern down the row.

Jerry Singleton, area Extension agent in Greenwood, Miss., says, "The dual row planter had some initial problems, including two of the Temik lines stopping up and one planter unit failing to plant any seeds for three rounds. These problems likely would have been worked out if the planter was producer owned.

"Plant emergence was more uniform in the single-row planter system, and some thrip damage was observed on individual cotton rows where no Temik was applied," he says.

Producer Gary Fratesi admits there was some learning associated equipment problems during planting. "Basically, it was a new planter and nobody was familiar with it. Some hoses got kinks in them and one planter unit was stopped up for some time. We tried to maintain plant populations per row foot and per acre, with a goal of 45,600 plants per acre for the single-row system, and 47,400 plants for the twin-row system."

A plant population count May 28 found 29,088 plants in the conventionally planted cotton, and 31,811 plants in the twin-row system. Additional plant population evaluations later in the growing season confirmed these numbers.

A fruiting node count July 9 found basically no difference between the two planting systems.

Spraying and cultivating the dual-row system became an equipment modification problem, Singleton says. "The entire farm, except for the dual-row area, had 38 inches between the cotton stalks. Due to these differences, spray nozzles, cultivators and fenders would have to be adjusted."

"Conventional tillage and harvest equipment set for 38-inch rows can knock some fruit off of twin-row cotton. And during lay-by, we couldn't lap our lay-by application without burning some plants up in the twin-row system," Fratesi says. "In order for the dual-row system to work on our farm, we would need a wider row, and wider cultivating and harvesting equipment."

Another potential problem, Fratesi notes, is the possible lack of moisture available for the cotton plant. "The dual-row system plants the cotton on the shoulders instead of down the middle of the beds, which may limit moisture availability early in the season. Twin-row soybeans and other crops that are planted flat may work better," he says.

In 2002, the Delta farm was in mud from beginning to end, which could have played a part in some of the difficulties experienced through the growing season. In addition, the conventionally planted cotton was harvested before a rain, and the dual-row cotton was harvested after 1.55 inches of rain fell over an eight-day period.

Overall, the conventionally planted single-row cotton yielded 991 pounds per acre, and the dual-row cotton yielded 865 pounds per acre.

Added costs to the system, according to Fratesi, include the price of the twin-row planter, higher seed costs, and the cost of adapting equipment to fit a twin-row production system.

With two rows of plants, Fratesi says, his granular insecticide costs also increased, because he normally applies 4.5 pounds of Temik, which is metered out with the seed in the seed trench. With two seed trenches, that doubles.

Some of the problems they experienced could be overcome, Fratesi says, if they could apply Roundup later in the season, eliminating the need for special cultivation equipment. "Unless you went transgenic with herbicide applications made straight over the top, the dual-row planting systems may require that you have two sets of tillage equipment."

"If we have the planter available, we may try limited acreage again on a heavier soil type," Fratesi says. "Dual-row cotton might also be an alternative to 30-inch narrow-row cotton using the newer transgenic Roundup Ready varieties, which would allow spraying the cotton crop later in the season.

Despite its apparent problems, Singleton says discounting the dual-row cotton production practice wholesale may be jumping the gun slightly.

"In this comparison, there were no significant problems with the conventionally planted cotton. However, in the dual-row system there were planting problems, insecticide application problems, and harvest delays due to rainy weather. Any, or all, of these problems could have negatively affected the yields," he says.

According to Singleton, an area soybean farmer averaged a 7 percent yield increase in 2002 with the twin-row system and lower plant populations. So while there appears to be a potential yield benefit for soybeans, a similar benefit is still questionable for cotton, he says.

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