Millington, Tenn., cotton producer Ray Sneed had long been intrigued with the yield and quality benefits of 15-inch cotton. But he didn't like the idea of automatic dockage at the gin for stripper harvesting the crop.

But last year, the time had come for the farm to purchase a new cotton harvester, and John Deere had just released a new picker with specially designed heads that could spindle pick 15-inch and wider configurations. Sneed took advantage of the opportunity to convince his brothers and partners in their farming operation, Terry, Barry and Marvin, that 15-inch cotton could work.

The theory was that the conversion should make the farm's good cotton ground yield better and they could shift some of the farm's more marginal ground into cotton as well. The conversion was not too risky because the Sneeds recently had converted to 15-inch soybeans.

“I'm not locked into having a picker I can't use somewhere else,” Sneed said. “I'm already set up for 15-inch soybeans. So all my components are already here. All I did was add the concept.”

This spring, the cotton producer and his brothers are right in the middle of shifting about 40 percent of the farm's cotton acres into 15-inch cotton, with the remainder in 30-inch cotton.

Running between filling grain trucks and monitoring planting operations, Sneed noted, “I've always looked at 15-inch cotton as a high-yielding practice. But we can reduce weed control costs, too, through quicker canopy closure.

“Everyone who plants 10-inch (UNR) cotton and stripper harvests it, really likes the benefit of letting the cotton take care of weed problems. If we can get the benefits of UNR cotton and not take a discount because of bark, then it's a win-win situation.”

Sneed hopes 15-inch cotton and a Prowl application prior to planting to limit his weed control to one over-the-top application of Roundup at the fifth true leaf. The producer would eliminate a layby run through the field with hoods. “We'll use Staple or Envoke for any escapes.

“And if it doesn't work out on some fields, that's fine because the same picker picks 30-inch too. But my hope is that 15-inch cotton will be my best practice. It's not like we're making a radical change. Some people are set up on 38s and have to have a separate planter for 15-inches. This fits our situation perfectly.”

The Sneeds are increasing their plant population for the switch, but not significantly. “I'm planting about 70,000 plants per acre in 15-inch, and I'm planting 60,000 plants per acre in 30-inch cotton.”

But Sneed points to research that shows he can reduce his planting population even more in 15-inch cotton without a reduction in yield. He'll experiment with a lower plant population once he's more familiar with the practice.

By squeezing cotton plants closer in row spacing and planting a little over two seeds per foot, Sneed believes he'll achieve a week of earliness, more uniform maturity and more first position bolls, all of which should translate into better quality. He's hoping to save scrapping costs as well.

Before last season, the Sneeds purchased a John Deere 1790 Central Commodity System planter, which will plant 31 15-inch rows or 16 30-inch rows. The planter has two large hoppers with a combined capacity between 70 bushels and 100 bushels. It can also plant corn, sweet corn, popcorn, sunflowers, soybeans and sorghum.

Varieties in 15-inch cotton include ST5242 BR, DP 444 BG/RR, ST 4575 BR, ST 5599 BR and DP 449 BG/RR or DP 445 BG/RR.

According to Jeff Barnes, an agronomist and crop systems specialist with John Deere, growers have varying reasons for going to 15-inch cotton. “One of our early customers was trying to promote earliness. They had some river-bottom land where they had lost crops to flooding in the spring and the winter. They have seen five to eight days of earliness from 15-inch cotton versus 38-inch cotton.

“Other growers may have some weaker ground where cotton doesn't fill the row on 38-inch rows, and they have difficulties with weed control. This type of system will help them maximize light interception and nutrients.”

Erosion control is another factor for some growers. “On some of their hilly ground, they see more erosion when they plant wide-row cotton. They see 15-inch cotton as a way to conserve the soil and maintain the value of the land and produce greater yield.”

To pick 15-inch cotton, the Sneeds purchased a new John Deere 9996 six-row picker equipped with Pro-12 Vari-Row System (VRS) picking heads. According to Barnes, the VRS heads add about $15,000 to the cost of the picker versus one with traditional heads.

The units, which can harvest 15- to 40-inch rows, also fit new 9970 and 9986 cotton pickers and retrofit 9970, 9976 and models build since 1997. According to Deere, little changeover time between row spacings is required.

To achieve 15-inch row capability as well as wider row spacing, the new headers are designed with an integrated feeding and cutting mechanism on the front right-hand side of the unit. The system is synchronized with the harvester's picking speed, and this allows picking of 15-inch row cotton at normal harvesting speeds.


e-mail: erobinson@primediabusiness.com