They told Mark Rogers it wouldn’t work — that cotton grown behind calves wouldn’t perform well because the animals would pack the ground so much that the cotton would suffer.

But, Rogers tried it anyhow and has proved the naysayers wrong. Not only is he growing strip-till cotton on fields where calves have wintered on ryegrass, yields on those fields are consistently better than for his conventional cotton.

Cotton and calves are not the route Rogers, who also grows peanuts with his father, Mitchell, near Collins in south central Mississippi, had in mind when he went to Mississippi State University to study poultry science, with the idea of going into the chicken business.

“There’s a lot of poultry in this part of the state,” he says, “and a lot of people have done well in that business. But, when I got my poultry science degree in 1996, I re-examined the situation.

“The investment cost is heavy — it can easily run a million dollars — and you’re stuck with those chicken houses for the long term in order to recoup that investment. I just wasn’t sure I wanted to be tied down to that kind of commitment, either financially or in terms of years.

“So, I came back here and farmed with my father, also growing some cotton on my own, until I figured out what I wanted to do.

“ I had grown up in farming. My father has farmed here since the 1960s, and my grandfather and great-grandfather before him.

“My father grew cotton and raised cattle for many years, but when the gin closed in 1976 and everybody around here got out of cotton, he sold his equipment and got out, too, and put a lot of the land in pastures and timber. In 1982, when cattle prices dropped, he got out of cattle, too.”

In 1989, a gin opened in Rankin County, about 75 miles away, and he started gradually getting back into cotton. In 1993, he bought a module builder and two 2-row pickers, and since then has steadily increased cotton acres. “We bought a 4-row picker in 1997 and would like to get a 6-row machine, but our terraces and everything are set up for 4-row.

“We’re the only cotton farmers in this county and our operation is spread out over a 16-mile radius. Our largest field is 76 acres, but most average 20 acres to 30 acres. The nearest gin now is exactly 103 miles from our shop, Gaddis & McLaurin Gin at Bolton, Miss.”

It was the challenge of coming up with something to keep farm labor busy during the winter that led Mark to his present operation.

“I fenced in some of the land, planted it in ryegrass, bought some calves, let them graze through the winter, and sold them in the spring. That turned out pretty well.

Ryegrass stubble

“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.

Calves gained well

“The bright spot, though, was that it was one of the best years I’ve had for the calves. They gained well — averaging 2.1 pounds a day through the winter — and prices were good, so that proved a lifesaver financially.”

Long term, Mark says, his average for cotton behind cattle is 950 pounds per acre and for conventional, about 760 pounds to 780 pounds.

This year, he planted Stoneville 5288B2F, a Roundup Ready Flex/Bollgard II variety, on land behind cattle. “It’s a medium maturity, tough, versatile variety that sets a high level of fruiting nodes and has outstanding yield potential,” he says. For conventional fields, he planted Stoneville 5458B2RF, a new Roundup Ready Flex/Bollgard II variety that also offers rootknot nematode tolerance.

The cotton was planted May 6 and by early July was blooming well and setting bolls.

“Since we’re the only cotton farmers around, we don’t have many pest problems — unless you count deer, which mowed down 40 acres of cotton last year,” Mark says. “The Bollgard technology takes care of any worms, and we may spray a couple of times during the season for plant bugs.”

He applies potash and phosphate in the fall when planting ryegrass, and 120 units of nitrogen during the winter. “In most years, we’ll apply 1,000 pounds of lime in the spring behind the cattle, based on soil tests. Then, we’ll put down 55 units of nitrogen ahead of the planter. I figure the manure from the calves is equivalent to about 40 units of nitrogen.”

They’ve been operating with one four-row John Deere 9965 picker, but recently bought a used John Deere 9960 four-row machine to increase harvesting capability. “We hope to be done by the end of September or early October. I like to have the ryegrass planted by the middle of October.”

Mark says he learned a valuable lesson early on — that baling the ryegrass for hay is a no-no for the cotton that follows.

“I baled the hay, planted cotton, and everything was fine until early August, when the cotton started showing a potash deficiency and a lot of it defoliated. When you take that much hay off the field, I found, it also takes off a lot of potash. I haven’t made that mistake again.”

Mark says they have another 500 acres to 600 acres that could be fenced for the cotton-behind-calves program. “Our soil is basically a sandy clay, and we’ve found the hill land that drains well does better for ryegrass-cotton than bottom land.”

In addition to the improved cotton yields following ryegrass/calves, he says ryegrass also grows better behind cotton. “The only thing I have to be careful of is that some cotton materials have a residual effect on ryegrass.”

While a lot of their land in the rolling hills isn’t suited to cotton, it does make good pasture land, Mark says. About 500 acres is devoted to ryegrass for winter grazing for 1,000 calves, figuring two calves per acre.

“I’ll start buying 325-pound calves in late September/early October and sell them in May, when they’re 600 pounds to 675 pounds. They did really well this past winter, averaging 722 pounds at sale.

“They’re mostly Angus, Brangus, and Charolais crosses — a little bit of everything. When they go to the feedlots, the breed doesn’t matter that much. I mostly look for animals that are uniform in height and weight, and am not that concerned about color.”

Fattening calves

Unlike the long-term commitment for poultry, Mark says fattening calves overwinter “can be whatever you want it to be — once you sell them in the spring, you’re not obligated to do it again if you don’t want to.

“I like working with calves, and the ryegrass/calves/cotton program has worked well for me. I’ve been doing it 12 years now, adding fencing for another 40 acres to 60 acres each year.”

In addition to the cotton and calves enterprises, the Rogers have 155 acres of peanuts.

“Rather than taking them to a buying point for processing and commercial uses, we sell them green, out of our shop here on the farm. There is really a good market for green peanuts — a lot of people come out of New Orleans and buy them by the truckload to resell for boiling.

“We grow three varieties, with staggered plantings starting in late March and going into early July. We have 35 acres of Valencias, a smaller size peanut, which we started digging in early July. They’ll yield 1 ton to 1.5 tons per acre. We grow about 60 acres of Virginias, a medium-size peanut, which yield 2 tons to 2.5 tons per acre, and 60 acres of Super Jumbos, with about the same yield. By staggering planting and harvesting, we’ll have peanuts to sell from early July all the way to Thanksgiving.”

Back in the 1970s, Mark says, “My father and his uncle, Dennis Mitchell, were growing peanuts under the government quota system and shared equipment. They grew runner-type peanuts for the oil market. After the quota system was abolished, they were so far away from the mills that there wasn’t much profit growing peanuts for the market, so they switched to producing strictly for green sales.

“Our operation and his uncle’s are now separate — we’re friendly competitors — and we’ve expanded a little each year. We do only minimal shaking and cleaning after digging the peanuts, then bag them and put them in the cooler until they’re picked up.”

Mark says he expects to continue with his cotton-behind-calves program for the immediate future.

“My father is getting to the point he may want to retire one of these days, and I don’t see myself growing 1,200 acres of cotton long term. There’s only so much I can do without stretching things.”

e-mail: hbrandon@farmpress.com