“Tell him to put something in the paper about this four-and-a-half bale cotton,” the voice on the radio crackled.

A grinning Nicky Burgess shook his head at the request from one of his picker drivers. “That’s not four-and-a-half bale cotton,” he said, explaining that he had calibrated the monitor on that operator’s picker with another and both were reading high.

Burgess, precision farming specialist for the Fullen Land and Management operation near Ashport, Tenn., said he would adjust the yields accordingly after the harvest was completed.

Whether the readings were accurate or not, the cotton on the Fullen farm in the “Tennessee Delta” along the western edge of the state certainly looked like it was approaching 4.5 bales. Or maybe the fact it was planted on 15-inch rows just made it look like more.

While much of the Mid-South has suffered from a lack of rainfall in 2006, the fields on the Fullen farm experienced a phenomenal year. Tennessee farmers, as a whole, appear to be harvesting one of their best crops ever.

“We seemed to get a rain whenever we needed it,” said Burgess. “We still had to run our center pivots, but we were getting rains when other farmers around us were missing them.”

The 7,000 acres of cotton on Fullen farm lie in a narrow strip of land along the Mississippi River that looks more like the Mississippi Delta than the rolling hills that make up most of west Tennessee. The land west of Ashport toward the river has deep, alluvial, “Delta-type” soils.

“This was a little Utopia this year,” says Burgess, who came to work for Fullen three years ago. “They’ve grown a little bit of everything here over the years. There are some peanut diggers left over from peanut harvesting under that shed over there.”

At some point in the future, the Fullen farm may have another claim to fame. Scott Fullen and his family were among the first to plant cotton on 15-inch rows and harvest it with a spindle picker.

In the 2004 season, Fullen and a handful of other growers across the Cotton Belt planted a total of 2,000 acres of cotton on 15-inch rows and spindle picked it. Fullen and Gill Rogers of Hartsville, S.C., spoke about their experience at a 15-inch Cotton Symposium at the 2005 Beltwide Cotton Conference in New Orleans.

They harvested the narrow-row cotton using John Deere’s Pro-12 VRS picker. The picker can be configured to harvest 12 rows spaced 15 inches apart or for more conventional row spacings.

Fullen and Rogers’ success attracted the attention of other growers who began experimenting with 15-inch spacings. John Deere agronomists estimate farmers planted 20,000 acres of 15-inch, spindle-picked cotton in 2005 and 40,000 acres in 2006.

Growers have been planting on narrow row (30-inch) and ultra-narrow-row (7.5- to 10- to 15-inch) spacings for a number of years. Research has shown that narrowing the row spacings can increase yields, especially on the more marginal soils such as those in the hill areas of Mississippi and Tennessee.

But the yield gains from ultra-narrow-row, stripper-harvested cotton have often been offset by higher seed costs for increased plant populations and plant growth regulator applications. And growers who were able to save on expenses saw their cotton discounted 2 and 3 cents per pound because of the poor quality reputation of stripper-harvested cotton.

“The added costs and the discounts made it difficult to work economically,” said K.R Reddy, a researcher with the USDA Agricultural Research Service’s Southern Weed Science Research Unit at Stoneville, Miss. “And controlling weeds could be a problem since you couldn’t post-direct herbicides in the ultra narrow rows.

“Now we have Roundup Ready Flex cotton, which you can spray after the four-leaf stage, and seed costs are not as high in the 15-inch cotton as the 7.5-inch or 10-inch row spacings.”

Preliminary research at Stoneville indicates that canopy closure can occur up to four weeks faster in 15-inch cotton than with 40-inch row spacings, possibly saving growers one herbicide application, says Reddy. The narrow row spacings can also reduce the amount of plant growth regulator needed by the cotton.

Harper Ross, a grower from Leland, Miss., decided to try a variation of the narrower row pattern called skip 15-inch. Planting two rows 15 inches apart on a 40-inch bed with a 25-inch skip between them allows producers to post-direct herbicides or side-dress nitrogen applications when needed.

“We’ve been trying to cut back on expenses,” says Ross. “We believe the 15-inch skip cotton saved us about 4 gallons per acre on fuel and a couple of insecticide applications for plant bugs. And we’re using one less tractor. All together, we think we’re looking at a reduction of $40 per acre.

“That’s a significant savings for us,” he said. “$40 may not save the world, but it will help.”

Ross conducted a large-scale variety trial and seeding and nitrogen rate studies on skip 15-inch cotton in 2006. The varieties included a wide range of maturities from the major seed companies. Seeding rates ran from 45,000 to 150,000 plants per acre and nitrogen from 75 to 150 units of 46 percent urea.

“Several of the varieties look different on the 15-inch rows,” said Ross, who was interviewed on Aug. 15. “But, in general, the early varieties look better in these row spacings.”

The study on the Ross farm and by land grant university researchers indicate growers may not need to plant as many seed per acre in 15-inch rows as in the ultra-narrow-row spacings of 7.5-inch and 10-inch.

“The big thing is we want to get a good stand,” says Tom Barber, Extension cotton specialist with Mississippi State University, who also spoke at the Ross farm. “The data shows we can still plant in the 45,000 to 50,000 seed range and get a good stand.”

“Looking at varying amounts of nitrogen on 15-inch cotton, it doesn’t appear that the optimum rate is that much different than that on wide rows,” says Allen York, professor of crop production and Extension specialist with North Carolina State University. “We’re running on average 70 to 75 units with narrow cotton, which is about where we’re peaking out on wide rows.”

Barber said he likes planting the 15-inch rows on beds “the way Harper is doing it. We haven’t been able to canopy some of our wide row cotton even with irrigation this season, and this can help with that.”

Harper Ross’ 15-inch cotton received a total of 2.5 inches of rain, including 1.5 inches on the Saturday night before the visit to Ross’ farm on Aug. 15. Some cotton was already being picked in the area because of the lack of rainfall during the growing season.

“One rain made a big difference on the dryland cotton,” said Ralph Azlin, who farms with Ross near Leland and with family members in Tribbett, Miss. “We caught 0.8 to 0.9 inches one day and it seemed to help the dryland cotton. The irrigated cotton looks good, but it was more expensive to grow.”

Ross also uses the skips between the 15-inch rows to “plow a furrow to make it water better. This is the only time we ran another tractor through the field after the planter on some of the 15-inch cotton.”

Bennie McCann, who farms across the Mississippi River in Phillips County, Ark., had received no rain on the 7,000 acres of 15-inch cotton he planted this year from June 15 to Aug. 15. After growing 2,000 acres of 15-inch in 2005, McCann decided to switch about 90 percent of his 8,000 acres of cotton to 15-inch row spacings in 2006.

“The land I farm is part of a much bigger operation, and I probably have more marginal land than anyone else,” said McCann, whose operation is located near the small town of Wabash, 20 miles south of Helena, Ark. “The rest of my crop is on the better cotton land and is planted in wide rows.”

Besides being better suited for his marginal land – much of it rice ground that has been put to zero grade – McCann thinks planting in 15-inch rows may be a better fit for today’s farming environment.

“The reason we started planting 15-inch cotton is labor,” said McCann. “Once you plant it, you’re either going to spray it with a Hi-Boy or a ground-rig of some kind or an airplane. It eliminates your hooded sprayers and changes your irrigation. I don’t know about the other places, but in our area labor has almost gotten to be non-existent.”

Nearly all of his 15-inch cotton was planted in Flex varieties in 2006, he noted. One employee driving a Hi-Boy was able to spray 6,000 acres. That eliminated four hooded sprayers and their tractors. “We had a little less fuel and a little more seed in the 15-inch,” he said. “We may have spent $100 per acre less on narrow row.”

McCann picked about 1,200 pounds of lint cotton per acre on non-irrigated Deltapine 444 BG/RR in 15-inch rows in 2005. “We figure we can beat soybeans on this gumbo ground with anything over 800 pounds of lint cotton per acre,” he said. “Most of this is rice and soybean country. But red rice is driving us out of commercial rice.”

He plans to plant 7,500 acres of 15-inch cotton in 2007. “I hope we’ll be able to get to the point where we can increase yields with the 15-inch,” he notes. “We won’t this year because of the dry conditions. But we think the 15-inch system has potential.”

e-mail: flaws@farmpress.com