“For years, Claude has felt technology has progressed enough to allow us to experiment with cotton behind wheat. We’ve now done it for the past two years,” says Marshall, who runs Bearskin Farm, near Scott, Ark. “When Bonner first started working with double-cropping cotton, Bt cotton hadn’t been invented. Neither had Roundup Ready cotton. Both of those contribute to an early crop. Other things that weren’t around: boll weevil eradication, no-till, good Pix management, fungicides, seed treatments – all kinds of tools available now.”

And harvesting efficiency is also much improved. It used to be that if harvest was completed by Thanksgiving that was a good job, says Marshall. “Now, if you pick past the end of October, that’s late.”

Bonner, through an earlier job as Arkansas Extension cotton specialist, had some previous experience with double-cropped cotton.

“But that was years ago with different varieties, techniques and farmers,” says Bonner.

For the 2001 effort, wheat was planted on old cotton beds. In early June the wheat was harvested, the stubble burned and cotton planted back on the old beds.

Setting up double-crop

“We did this in a small plot situation – three varieties were replicated four times over a 20-acre field. We were doing it to get our feet wet, to see what varieties would work. Varieties we tried were Paymaster 1218 BGRR, Sure-Grow 215 BGRR, and Paymaster 1199RR,” says Bonner.

The double cropping has been done on some of the better cotton soils available on Bearskin Farm – sandy loams. The soils are well drained.

“Picking the right field is very important. In order to do this, you must be able to get water on and off the field in a timely manner,” says Merritt Holman, a consultant with Arkansas Crop Technology who worked on the project with Bonner.

All the production in wheat must be aimed toward good maturity and earliness. Wheat varieties were picked for earliness and production practices that enhance earliness were employed.

“As soon as the wheat is burned down, we plant the cotton. We’re literally trying to save hours. We didn’t have too much trouble getting the cotton up. There were a couple of spots in the field that were a little slow, but not alarmingly so. We typically get a stand in four days,” says Bonner.

The cotton zooms

Whatever farmers think a rapid cotton crop is when it’s planted in late April, this is dramatically quicker, says Marshall. When planting in June, the heat units available really help “goose” the cotton and it takes off.

With this type of double-cropping system, the minute something seems amiss it must be dealt with.

“You can’t wait around a couple of days to see what develops. Problems will get out of hand if you don’t jump. Timeliness is the key to this whole thing,” says Holman.

Marshall intentionally had the fields set up in sight of his office.

“That way, if we get free for five minutes, we can stroll out and walk the rows. My advice to anyone trying this is to plant it right under your nose so you can keep an eye on it.”

The consultants gave the fields a formal look twice a week.

“But if I was driving by and had a few minutes during lunch to check it, I would. What’s happening in that field is plants are on a schedule different from that of any other field around. From the day we planted it – probably 45 days later than the first-planted cotton – it’s zooming along. And at harvest there won’t be a time gap. By the time we get the early cotton picked, this double-cropped cotton will be ready,” says Holman.

In each of the two years, defoliation and boll opening application occurred within the first 10 days of October.

Lessons learned

In Marshall’s view, what he’s learned from double-cropped cotton is it isn’t feasible for large acreage.

“I’m not sure that other than a test plot-sized field we’ll continue this,” says Marshall. “But what we’ve learned is how quickly we can develop a cotton crop, how much timing and execution add to both yield and early harvest.

“I think we’ve learned more by doing this than we would have by planting with the same protocol year after year. If we can achieve some earliness in the full season crop utilizing some of the techniques employed in double-crop, we can send pickers through the field five or six days earlier. Doing that on a consistent basis year after year, means something very beneficial for our farm. Any cotton farmer knows what five or six extra picking days – great picking days – on the front end of a season means. By having those extra days many things are impacted positively: cash flow, land preparation for the next year and other things.”

The focal point should be on what a farmer can gain on his total cotton acreage with this system, says Marshall. His experiment has dispelled some fallacies, “like Paymaster 1218 is not a good cotton to plant late. Obviously, June 8 is a late date by anyone’s measure. But we planted it then, and we’re not seeing fiber quality problems.”

The 2002 crop

Last season, Marshall had an 80-acre field and a 50-acre field in double-cropped cotton. The 80-acre field made 141 bales and the other made 118 bales – together the fields made 259 bales.

“By doing this, we’ve learned all kinds of things. I’d suggest that you can’t harvest wheat without a chopper on the combine. That’s because you can’t get a stand under the shoe. We took a high-speed flail mower and mowed the stubble because we felt the stubble was too high. We did that before we sprayed Roundup because we worried coverage wouldn’t be good enough. These are things that in normal production people don’t have time to do.”

Among other lessons:

  • Only consider planting double crop cotton with a Bt-Roundup Ready variety.
  • “We learned only to use the earliest maturing variety we were familiar with – in this case, Paymaster 1218.”

  • Aggressive Pix management.

    “Pix usage is absolutely essential. Pix management is off the chart – it’s more aggressive than anything being done on any other farm I’ve seen,” says Holman. “Pix applications ran weekly on this crop for six or seven weeks. We started the first Pix at fifth true leaf and ran it through around the 20th of July.”

Marshall doesn’t think double-cropping cotton should be done on any more than 10 percent of a farm’s cotton acreage.

“The control factors on this might be that you can still complete harvest by Oct. 25. You don’t need to do this is you’re going to be harvesting into November. You’ve got to have the picking power to accomplish harvest in 25 days or so.”

e-mail: dbennett@primediabusiness.com