Consultant has farmers put plows away and try something new Farming in this area of northeast Louisiana - Tensas Parish - usually means dealing with mixed-to-heavier soils. Consultant Stephen Crawford says many of his clients have put up their plows and are trying something new.

Mike Vinson, who farms 912 acres of cotton outside Newellton, La., says only 100 of his acres felt a plow this year. "I can't stand the plows and love this system. I can get caught up really quick with a 20-row boom and cover a lot of ground with little labor.

"We can't stay on top of tie vines here with 8-row equipment. The pressure is too intense. If we get a shower at a peak time, we've lost. Hooded sprayers help, but they aren't the answer - conventional methods just didn't work well enough," says Vinson.

The majority of Vinson's acreage is irrigated. He says he's blessed with good water. A large pivot stands behind him. "This year, I circled this 400 acres nine times. It takes six days and about 800 gallons of diesel to put 0.6 inch on. We had to water cotton up this year - even in old beds."

Still, Vinson's yields were good and grades - especially on some early cotton - were phenomenal. Irrigated yields should be up to 1.75 bales.

"The dryland will not be that good. Overall, this is the poorest-yielding crop Tensas Parish has had in 20 or 30 years," says Crawford.

Before the latest rains, Vinson picked around 600 bales. Incredibly, nearly 200 of those bales were grade 11. Much more of it was grade 21.

"Those grades we got were unreal. It was beautiful out here. Every lock was mature and bulging. I'd never picked 11 grade before. That was welcome news in an otherwise pretty sorry year," says Vinson.

Bedding up "We're almost exclusively stale seedbed. I don't work with many of the high-grade silt loams along the riverbeds. The way we deal with these soils is through stale seedbed," says Crawford, who works out of St. Joseph, La.

Crawford suggests farmers build a foot-high row in the fall. "Ideally, we'll shape it for planting in the fall. So the first mechanical thing we do in the spring is just drop in and plant."

Of course, that requires some early-season herbicide inputs to get rid of winter vegetation. Crawford promotes putting out a preplant burndown.

"This year, we used a glyphosate product tank-mixed with 2,4-D about March 1 - before corn emerged. We wanted to reduce the risk of Roundup damage to people's corn through drift."

Drift is a horrible problem around Tensas Parish - as it is in many areas of the Delta . Crawford likens 1999 drift problems to a civil war. "Neighbors were fighting about who was responsible for drift damage. It was a horrible scene. At that time, I committed myself to getting the earliest preplant herbicide I could."

Since leaving LSU AgCenter research a few years ago, Crawford has worked as a consultant. Always trying to find a new way to get things done, Crawford knows the difficulty of dealing with morningglories and johnsongrass in the area.

"The weeds are getting tougher to control. With registrations changing and products being lost, I was looking for products to replace them. I found Diuron to be close in efficacy to the Bladex-type products. Plus it's much cheaper."

Diuron is marketed by Griffin L.L.C. as Direx 4L in a liquid-flowable material. It's also marketed as Karmex - a dry-flowable product.

Shifting programs Area farmers are slowly moving towards Roundup Ready cotton and broadcast applications, says Crawford. "We're trying to push programs that are more equipment- and time-effective. I said, `Let's look at putting out Direx with our preplant burndown herbicides to give us some residual help.' Re-infestation is always a problem."

Crawford first began looking at this about three years ago when he helped Griffin L.L.C. write a 24-C (special local need for Louisiana) for early preplant applications of Direx and Karmex. That request was approved, and Crawford continued to watch what the product could do. This year he began promoting it to growers.

"What this allows is putting a pre-emergence out at burndown. You can be ahead of the game. Because Direx is so cost-effective, we put out a broadcast for the same cost as banding Cotoran or Meturon at planting."

Time and labor saved Doing this also frees up the planter tractor, says Crawford - who's responsible for between 12,000 and 14,000 acres of cotton.

"A planter can move across many acres every day. One of the biggest drags is having to stop and go to the water trailer to fill up with pre-emerge herbicides. You can eliminate that stop-and-start step by doing this."

Many of Crawford's clients put out a burndown the first of March - a glyphosate, 2,4-D and Direx. Then, when planting cotton between April 20 and May 1, some had to deal with weeds that had come up.

"A few days before planting we sometimes came in with another herbicide - in some cases another shot of glyphosate at a modest rate. Then we planted the Roundup Ready cotton.

"Because of the weed pressure we have in the Delta, I'm strongly committed to two applications of Roundup over-the-top. Within the window of opportunity, we get two shots on. So from emergence to fifth leaf, we've gotten two applications of glyphosate out - one at the one- to two-leaf stage and the second right before the fifth leaf shows."

Conceptually, that puts you at very clean cotton approaching first square. There are different philosophies about this, says Crawford. There are academic arguments about post-directing glyphosate products versus others. Crawford has taken a conservative approach, he says.

"Unless it's absolutely necessary, I don't post-direct glyphosate because I'm afraid of translocation into the fruiting plant and things like that. We use hooded sprayers. Where we use them we're normally applying Direx plus paraquat or sometimes glyphosate under hoods and post-directing Direx plus MSMA to the cotton."

This is in lieu of cultivation. The benefits of this include moisture conservation by not stirring the soil. The other thing is, every time farmers go through with a cultivator, they just bring up new weed seed to vex the crop further.

A final step of the program that has worked well for Vinson and others is a lay-by application of Direx and MSMA as the crop approaches first bloom.

Varieties "We planted mostly DPL 451 this year. Previously, we worked with DPL 458. But the good, consistent seed supply hasn't been there, so we went with more 451. Where it's been side-by-side with conventionals, it's done really well. We feel very good about its yield potential."

This year, cotton was probably no more than 20 percent Roundup Ready in the area. Roundup Ready hasn't caught on big, says Crawford. That's mainly due to not having a consistent supply of a good variety seed. That should change quickly, he says.

"This is one of the most intensely populated areas of morningglories that I've ever worked. I thought if our Roundup Ready program would work here - coupled with the residual materials - it could work anywhere. It's worked really well."

Credentials In his work as a weed scientist with LSU, Crawford did cotton, rice, plant growth regulator and other research. He says if anything helps farmers keep growing cotton, Roundup Ready cotton is it.

"I can remember a survey years ago that asked me whether I preferred a Roundup Ready- or Buctril-tolerant cotton. I answered `Buctril-tolerant.' I've hammered myself ever since."

Crawford's response was due to the problems the area has with morningglory.

"Yeah, Buctril will kill morningglory, but it almost promotes the growth of other weeds.

"The first experience I had with Roundup Ready technology, I thought, `My, how wonderful this is.'"

Crawford likes it because it allows him to budget costs so well. "I can just about tell a grower what it'll cost to control weeds for a year. I'm not an entomologist, but the same holds for Bt technology. Insect control costs can get out of hand. Bt helps with estimates of insect control costs.

"You can now sit down with a grower and say, `We're likely to spend this much on insect control and weed control. If we make this much cotton, we'll likely come out.'

"In past years, we haven't been able to come close to doing that. These new technologies have great appeal because of that. There's a tremendous economic battle going on. To survive, we've got to be able to cut some costs out of cotton production. This helps."