NEW ORLEANS -- Cotton farmers who shied away from ultra-narrow-row systems because of price discounts are beginning to look at 15-inch-row picker cotton as a solution to a variety of production problems.

Scott Fullen was one of those growers who studied ultra-narrow-row cotton extensively in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but decided against trying UNR because of questions about whether textile mills would pay full price for it.

“There is a lot of ultra-narrow-row cotton in Tennessee, and that’s one reason we went to this (15-inch picker cotton) so quickly,” said Fullen, who farms with his family near Ripley, Tenn. “We liked the idea of ultra-narrow-row planting, so when we heard about the new 15-inch picker system, we jumped at it.”

Fullen, a speaker at a seminar on 15-inch-row cotton at the Beltwide Cotton Conferences in New Orleans, planted about 900 acres in 15-inch rows last spring.

He and his family made more than a casual commitment to the concept, according to John Deere crop systems specialist Andy Pace, who moderated the seminar. (Deere, Monsanto and Delta and Pine Land Co. sponsored the seminar.)

“This past year we had a limited build of our new Pro-12 VRS Row units for cotton pickers to see if we were on the right track,” said Pace, referring to the harvesting system that makes it possible for growers to spindle pick 15-inch rows.

“We had a little trouble finding growers who were willing to take us up on our offer to test them. But Scott and his family took a big chance and purchased a 9996 picker in a six row with the Pro-12 VRS Row units and grew some substantial acreages of 15-inch cotton.”

Fullen told a standing-room-only crowd at the seminar that he planted the 15-inch cotton on several different soil types in the Tennessee “Delta,” the narrow strip of land that lies between the Mississippi River and the rolling hills in west Tennessee. Some of the land was irrigated; some not.

“The biggest reason we were looking at it was to shorten the growing season,” he said. “If we can take a week off at the first of the season and see where the Mississippi River is and whether we’re going to be flooded, it can make a big difference for us.

“The 15-inch-row cotton did mature quicker without a doubt. I think a week would be very easy to achieve.”

2004 may not have been the best year to try 15-inch-row cotton. “We had plenty of rain, and I would think this system would tend to work better than our 38-inch-row system in a dryer year,” he said.

“We had wet conditions, but we really didn’t have a problem controlling the cotton. We probably didn’t use much more Pix on the 15-inch rows than on the 38-inch rows. We did start our plant growth regulator applications quicker and with higher rates, but at the end of the year the amounts were virtually the same.”

Fullen’s growing conditions were almost the exact opposite of those experienced by Gill Rogers, a farmer who cooperated with the seminar sponsors on a 15-inch-row study on his farm in Hartsville, S.C., in 2004.

“We had almost no soil moisture at planting time,” Rogers said. “We planted the cotton fairly easily, but we had no moisture to work with. And since we planted flat, we had no beds to retain moisture. So we were at the mercy of the rain.”

Rogers said most of the cotton didn’t germinate until June 5, and the stand was weak in places. The very late start could have meant trouble for Rogers when last year’s hurricanes begin blowing through the Southeast.

“Some of the cotton was blown over by the hurricanes,” he said. “Some of the varieties were more suitable for 15-inch rows, mainly in their maturity dates and the way they withstood the wind in the hurricanes. The taller, upright-growing plants seemed to weather better than the shorter plants did.”

Rogers said he tried ultra-narrow-row cotton for three or four years in the late 1990s, “and I thought it was a better production method in some ways. I tried different row spacings and plant populations, and it turned out real well. But the second year I found that the mills just did not want the stuff.”

When John Deere began talking about 15-inch-row picker units, Rogers decided to try them in 2003. The start of the 2003 season was almost as wet as the 2004 season was dry.

“It was a little bit hard to plant, but we got a good stand,” he said. “It was almost impossible to work the crop because we were getting so much rain. We had a dry fall, and harvesting wasn’t difficult. We got it harvested on time.”

The 15-inch system doesn’t permit growers to do a lot of fieldwork in the crop during the growing season, he noted. “We didn’t have a lot of intense labor during the season. You can’t run big tires in the rows, and it was pretty much one application of Roundup over the top.”

Rogers said yields from his 15-inch-row fields were comparable to the 30-inch-row cotton he grows on the remainder of his farm. “I think the yields would have been a little higher if we had replanted some of the cotton where we had a bad start in 2004,” he noted. “Quality was about the same as our conventional, 30-inch cotton.”

(The Hartsville study had three test plots – two 90-acre plots planted with DP 444 BG/RR, DP 449 BG/RR, DP 555 BG/RR and a 40-acre plot planted to DP 444 BG/RR, DP 449 BG/RR and DP424 BGII/RR.)

Fullen planted most of his 15-inch cotton in Paymaster 1218 – “the variety we’re most familiar with” – and the balance of 150 to 200 acres in DP 444 BG/RR. “I was trying to take out some variables,” he said. “I felt like I understood the 1218.”

He said the DP 444 BG/RR produced higher yields, “but that may have been because the 444 was on the better land. The 444 was the best cotton in the narrow row.”

A representative of Delta and Pine Land, which conducted nine studies with 15-inch-row cotton with John Deere and Monsanto in 2004, said the company was pleased with the results of the trials.

“We saw an increase in yield and an increase in earliness,” said Peter Peerbolte, director of marketing for Delta and Pine Land and a speaker at the seminar. “We think this planting system has a lot of potential.”

The jury is still out on some aspects of 15-inch-row cotton, according to the speakers. Take plant populations, for example.

“We planted 90,000 seed per acre, and we just kind of picked that number out of the air,” said Fullen. “We figured that you plant 100,000 to 120,000 on 7.5-inch, UNR rows and 50,000 on 38-inch rows, and we just picked 90,000. We pushed the population a little because I wanted a good, thick stand because of weed control.”

“The first year we were buying our own seed,” said Rogers. “The second year we were getting them from Delta and Pine and we upped the rate a little bit. We tried some the first year at 35,000 and 70,000 and tried some the second year at 50,000, and I really couldn’t tell any difference. If you knew how much it was going to rain, it would be easy to set the plant population.”

Peerbolte said Delta and Pine Land will not have a single, recommended plant population. “We’ve been involved in the project for one year, and we saw plant populations everywhere from 65,000 to 90,000. “We will have a recommendation for that part of the country where it will be planted.”

Fullen’s experiment with 15-inch-row cotton in 2004 attracted the attention of his neighbors, according to agronomists.

“We’ve talked to some farmers in his area who wanted to try 15-inch cotton because they couldn’t believe how much cotton they saw in his 15-inch fields,” said David Guthrie, director of technical services for Emergent Genetics. “The concept is beginning to attract attention.”

e-mail: flaws@primediabusiness.com