Blowing sand often wipes out young stands of Mid-South cotton. These men and others who farm the Bootheel of Missouri have refined a system of wheat-cotton strip-farming which protects soil and cotton.
Housewives in the Bootheel of Missouri won't spend as much time this fall and winter "dusting" their furniture as they have in the past. With more wheat than ever before planted in the middles of the sandy loam cotton fields, farmers and city folk to the north will have no reason to joke, "Here comes Dunklin County!"
For years producers on the South Plains of Texas have been planting two to four rows of wheat in their cotton middles after harvest to save sandy soils and next season's young cotton plants.
Missouri growers, especially in the south Bootheel, have been fighting the elements and the sand with rotary hoes, cultivators, center pivot irrigation, and four and eight strips of wheat planted at regular intervals across the cotton fields.
Don Masters "There had to be a better way," says Don Masters of Arbyrd, Mo., who is credited with being the pioneer in what he calls wheat-cotton strip-farming. It is common knowledge in the area that he lost a "bunch of money" trying to perfect the practice in 1991.
"Wheat planted in the cotton middles is both an insurance policy and a profitable practice. Although the yields of conventional cotton and wheat-cotton are much the same in normal years, the differences in yields some. years could be an entire cotton crop!" Weather plays an important part in the new production practice.
"And even with nine crops under our belts, there is a great need for more fine-tuning. Strip-farming is affected by many variables, including how the wheat is planted, when it is killed, the amount of Roundup UltraMax used, and how major insects such as thrips and cutworms are controlled.
In 2001, in the Missouri Bootheel and other sandy parts of the South with windy conditions in the winter and spring, there will be green areas that resemble the great wheat state of Kansas.
And growers' production practices in the Missouri Bootheel will vary about as much as the weather.
Tommy Wilkins Tommy Wilkins, a 2,200-acre cotton grower of Hornersville, Mo., operates two six-row paratills on his cotton land after cutting stalks. Following that he uses a 12-row hipper to make good level beds.
"From a hitch on the rear of the ripper we pull a 12-row air seeder which delivers 35 to 40 pounds of wheat seed in 10-inch bands to the middles. The dirt falling back from the hippers covers the seed sufficiently."
He likes a heavy seeding of wheat seed because the thick stand encourages the plants to grow taller, faster.
Ron Lea Ron Lea, a 2,000-acre cotton grower of Hornersville, Mo., is in his fifth year with wheat-cotton. He puts out the needed potash as he hips up the old beds in the fall. With a fertilizer buggy he spreads 40 pounds of wheat seed, the lowest setting he is able to set on the buggy.
"Next we come in with a Do-All which pulls the beds down to the desired planting height. The dirt from the Do-All does a nice job of covering the seed that occupy 25 to 30 inches of my 38-inch rows. In early spring we run Anderson rippers in the tops of the bed and build them back with disk hippers."
Ted Rouse A 20-foot John Deere grain drill was used by Ted Rouse of Kennett, Mo., to seed two rows of wheat, 7.5 inches apart, in each middle of his 2,000-acre cotton crop. He uses the cheapest clean wheat seed he can find and plants only a quarter of a bushel per acre.
"That's less than $2 an acre for the seed - cheap insurance from this blowing sand. Wheat-cotton gives me a peace of mind.
Rouse has tried both broadcasting and drilling the two rows of wheat seed. "I got away from broadcasting the seed because it takes more cold steel to control the wheat that tends to turf up in the seedbed. When we layed by in 2000, we ran a sweep through each middle to assure a cleaner harvest.
"I have sat up many a night worrying about 30-mph wind that was forecast for the next day. That kind of wind taken out 200 to 300 acres of my cotton. It baffles me that we did not come up with this wheat-cotton solution 20 years ago."
Jim Schell Jim Schell who farms with a nephew, Sean Droke of Hornersville, Mo., warns that if you hit the wheat too early and with too high a rate of Roundup, it will "melt" on you, rather than give the protection of an upright stalk.
"Next year, I'll burndown the wheat when it begins to head, just prior to or after planting the cotton. I'll go to more Roundup Ready cotton and use a broadcast rather than a row-hooded sprayer," says Schell.
Robert Pierce Robert Pierce, who farms 3,200 acres of cotton with sons Robert Jr. and Jeff near Caruthersville, Mo., says they applied the Roundup three weeks early this past year. "In 2001, we will apply the Roundup just prior to planting and get more wind and sand protection from the wheat. This year we had only 1,200 of the 3,200 acres of cotton - on the lightest soils - with wheat in the middles, but we will increase that next year. We learned just how much protection the wheat gave us. The cold winds did more damage than we imagined."
The father-sons farming operation replanted some on the 2,000 acres not protected by the wheat, adding the costs of high-priced labor and planting seed.
"Obtaining good labor in these parts is a real problem. The wheat-cotton helps since we do not spend all of May running rotary hoes or cultivators. On the other hand, we would like to run paratills just after cutting stalks in the fall, but our men are engaged in other important jobs, like operating combines and cotton pickers," says Pierce.
He says that with Roundup Ready cotton, they could wait longer to kill the wheat - until the cotton was in the fourth true leaf - and obtain superior protection of the seedlings with the green wheat.
"The regular 32-ounce rate of Roundup is more than adequate to broadcast for grass and weed control in Roundup Ready cotton and to kill the wheat. That will enable us to kill the wheat slowly. Higher rates cause a faster kill and deteriorate the wheat."
Lonnie Gibson Lonnie Gibson, who farms with his father, Lonnie, near Arbyrd, Mo., says that because of the poor economic situation of cotton farming these days, they decided to skip the burndown of the wheat and hit the wheat and the cotton one time after cotton had emerged and was in the dicotyledon stage.
"We didn't get in a hurry to kill the wheat, which stood well and gave great protection during high winds in the spring. Since the wheat was green, the thrips had a good home and did not jump into the tender green cotton."
Gibson says he and his father saved about $9 an acre on a burndown and about $5 an acre on the material and the application of a thrips insecticide.
They do not advise skipping the burndown if the wheat is broadcast because the great number of wheat plants can sap young cotton of moisture and nutrients.
Richard Luye Richard Luye farms with a brother, Joe, and a cousin, Kevin Barnes, near Bragg City, Mo. For the first time ever they planted wheat in the middles of half of their 2,000-acre cotton crop.
"We had some misgivings at first about the dirty farming, but we liked it better each day the strong winds blew."
Since they like to farm clean, it was only natural for them to kill the wheat at the first opportunity. "We were afraid of cutworms and the possibility that the wheat might smother the seedling cotton if a lot of rain fell.
"We applied the Roundup too early and only stunted the wheat. We used a pint first and then came back with another pint. The wheat was thicker than it should have been because we spread 100 pounds per acre with a fertilizer buggy.
Their other costly error was lack of control of thrips that resulted from the early kill of wheat. "We should have treated some seed with Gaucho or dropped some Temik into the seed furrow. Asana was banded behind the planter press wheels, so we did have control of the cutworms."
The Pierce family, which is in the seed business, has seen no yield differences between the varieties used in their wheat-cotton. "If there are any yield differences, they will show up in the picking."
Max Moore Max Moore and his son, Marty, of Hornersville, Mo., are 100 percent into minimum-till or reduced-till, with wheat in the middles of even their watermelon and cantaloupe fields.
"Because of the labor shortage and many other things, we have to get accustomed to dirty farming. We did not like it at first, but now we like it best when the sand is blowing and we are retaining our land and cotton crop.
"We give minimum-tillage much credit in 2000 for our best crop in three years. We are producing more cotton per acre than ever before, but I attribute most of that increase to increased technology.
"When you are farming Roundup Ready cotton, you have to throw your pride aside," says Gibson. "Roundup is a contact herbicide. You must have a good weed carpet - one that you do not want your landlord to see - emerge before applying the Roundup. Then a miracle happens."
"We had some Roundup Ready cotton this year in wheat-cotton production," says Moore. "When we finish picking, we will know how much of it we will plant in 2001. We do not like to put all of our eggs in one basket. Neither do we want the ginner to tell us they cannot sell our seed or that we will have to pay $50 a bale out of the lint."
Schell says wheat-cotton matures quicker each year. "The answer is simple, it just gets off to an earlier, healthier start."
Lea tells of planting half conventional cotton and half wheat-cotton his first year. "We had to start the pivots on the conventional cotton one to two days sooner than those with the wheat grown in the middles. For the past several years we have never cultivated and have run hoods all the year.
"My purpose in growing the wheat-cotton is not to increase yields but to gain a peace of mind... to not have to worry about losing a crop."
The seedsmen on Pierce Farms say, "We have been in the wheat-cotton for only two years, but we will increase our acreage, as will others. Already we are getting calls and letters from farmers asking that we save them some wheat seed for this fall - and this is not wheat seed for grain."