“Then, I thought, why not follow the calves with cotton? My belief was that the organic matter from the ryegrass stubble and from the cow manure should be beneficial for the cotton. But, when I mentioned that theory to some old-time cotton growers, they told me it wouldn’t work, that the ground would be too packed behind the calves, and that the cotton just wouldn’t do well.”

Some neighbors who were growing cotton were using a strip-till plow that was giving them good results, which provided him an idea for further refining his calves/cotton idea.

“Basically, they were burning down vegetation with Roundup, making one pass through the field with the strip-till plow and to mark rows, then planting. The plow cuts a 14-inch-deep subsoil slot, which gives the seed soft ground for easy germination and lets the plant’s taproot quickly go straight down.”

The first year he tried it, Mark says, “almost made me believe what I’d been told about it not working.” He had bought one of the strip-till plows, but came planting time and things went somewhat awry.

“I got the calves off late and by the time I was ready to work up the field to plant cotton, we hadn’t had rain in six weeks, and the ground was packed hard as a brick —the plow wouldn’t penetrate it. The tractor wheels would just spin.

“Thankfully, we got a 1-inch rain to soften the ground and then the plow worked like a charm. That taught me my first lesson: If I was going to strip-till, I needed rain first.

“The 100 acres of cotton I planted strip-till into the ryegrass stubble behind the calves outperformed everything else by several hundred pounds. The following year, I did it on other land where I’d had calves, and I’ve gradually increased it every year since.

“I’ve never had a year in which cotton behind calves didn’t outperform conventional cotton, even in side-by-side fields.”

“Basically, what I do after selling the calves is to burn down the ryegrass, run the strip-till plow, and then plant cotton right into the stubble — cow patties and all. I figure the manure is equivalent to 3 tons to 4 tons of chicken litter. I’ve found the cotton fruits quicker, grows off better, and out-yields my conventional cotton. In most cases, it will begin fruiting on the fourth node, compared to the fifth node for conventional.”

Mark says this year’s crop “is probably the best-looking I’ve ever had. We got planted on time, have had some good rains, and it has grown off well. I’m just hoping we’ll have a good fall so we’ll have a chance to make up some of what we lost last year.”

Like most Mid-South farmers, 2009 is a year he’d as soon forget as far as cotton is concerned.

“Going into late summer, I had a fantastic crop. I started defoliating late August-early September, and then the rains set in. There was so much regrowth, I ended up defoliating three times. The rain also caused a lot of boll rot. I probably had a 900-pound or better yield going into harvest, but ended up getting only 500 pounds. It was disheartening, to say the least.