Late in May, a strange-looking, 16-row John Deere planter was being pulled through Gill Rogers' cotton fields near Hartsville, S.C. The implement had 16 seed and chemical hoppers squeezed in tightly on the toolbar 15 inches apart and was planting one of nine test plots across the United States that are part of a cooperative project between Delta and Pine Land Company (D&PL), John Deere and Monsanto to study the benefits and challenges of growing cotton in 15-inch rows.

Plots have been planted at Mississippi State University; North Carolina State University; the Sunbelt Ag Expo in Moultrie, Ga.; Plains and Lamesa, Texas; and Moscow, Satanta and Copeland, Kan. A plot planted in Sinton, Texas was hailed out.

The 220-acre plot on Gill Rogers' farm is the featured location on a Website, www.15inchcotton.com, which documents the study.

D&PL provided seed, John Deere the equipment and Monsanto is contributing Roundup herbicide for the project.

In addition to giving its new Model 1730 Integral Planter some exposure, Deere will also demonstrate the new PRO-12 VRS Cotton Picker Units during the harvest of the larger plots.

“The new system is a spindle-pick solution to the harvest challenges that have plagued growers of narrow-row cotton,” says Jarred Karnei, crop systems specialist for John Deere and supervisor of the 15-inch-row cotton plots.

John Deere introduced the picker to the North American cotton industry during the 2004 Beltwide Cotton Conferences in San Antonio, Texas.

“It will be exciting to see how the various producer-cooperators manage the 15-inch-row cotton,” says Karnei. “Depending on a producer's equipment setup and other farming practices, things such as tire widths, weed control and insect control can pose challenges.

The three companies get to see how their products work in narrow-row production, and everyone involved benefits by learning more about this potentially yield-increasing practice in cotton.”

For producer-cooperator Rogers, of Hartsville, S.C., the 220-acre plot will not be the first narrow-row cotton planted on his farm. In 1995, Rogers, who farms with his brother, John, changed from 38-inch to 30-inch row spacing. A few years later, they experimented with small acres of ultra-narrow-row cotton in 7-, 15- and 16-inch rows.

“We've always looked for a better way to grow cotton,” says Rogers. “Going from 30-inch rows to 15-inch rows for test plots is not a big change for us. We had already adopted a concept of more-even seed spacing throughout the field to boost yield potential. The majority of our acres will be in 30-inch rows, but we look forward to being involved in this 15-inch-row study.”

The plot on Rogers Brothers Farm is divided into three locations: a 90-acre irrigated plot and 90-acre and 40-acre non-irrigated plots. The two 90-acre plots were planted with DP 444 BG/RR, DP 449 BG/RR and DP 555 BG/RR, and the 40-acre plot was planted with DP 444 BG/RR, DP 449 BG/RR and DP 424 BGII/RR. Two seeding rates — 52,000 and 70,000 seeds per acre — were used at each location.

Prior to planting, the plots, as well as the rest of the 5,000 acres on the farm, were grid soil-sampled and fed variable rates of fertilizers. Rogers owns his own variable-rate spreading trucks and GPS mapping equipment. He maps the fields and grid samples each field. The soil samples are sent to Waters Laboratory in Georgia. Waters e-mails results to Rogers' precision ag consultant, who writes a variable-rate prescription for the fields. 2004 is the first year Rogers has been able to put the entire program to work on his entire farm.

“We won't know how well we did with the variable-rate applications until further along in the summer,” Rogers says. “Fertilizer costs us money when we apply it to places that don't need it. With GPS and variable-rate technology, we are putting individual nutrients only where they are needed in the fields.”

In 2003, the 90-acre irrigated plot was planted in corn, and the two non-irrigated blocks were in cotton. The 40-acre field was planted in 15-inch-row cotton. In years past, when Rogers tried cotton on 7- and 15-inch row spacing, the biggest setback was at harvest time, when he used strippers to harvest.

“The narrow-row cotton grew and yielded well for the most part, but we could not sell the lint very easily because it was Upland cotton being stripped rather than spindle-picked,” Rogers says. “That created a lot of trash content in the lint.”

This year, Rogers' farm crew will manage the 220 test-plot acres. For him, it's a great opportunity to see new harvesting technology from Deere and further study the agronomics of growing narrow-row cotton.

“The idea with 15-inch-row cotton is to maximize the use of heat units on your cotton to retain more first- and second-position fruit, boosting the crop's yield potential,” says Rogers. “We'll get a good look at that and some new machinery, but ultimately, I want to determine if it is feasible to grow 15-inch-row cotton. I want to see if it can add value to our farm.”

The majority of the farm's 5,000 cotton acres are planted in DP 555 BG/RR this year — one of a handful of D&PL varieties being evaluated in the 15-inch-row cotton studies across the United States.

“DP 555 BG/RR makes a lot of cotton,” Rogers says. “It out-yields the other varieties on average by 150 pounds, and that is a conservative estimate in some fields. We have actually stopped planting some of the other varieties since DP 555 BG/RR became available.”

Rogers is interested in seeing DP 444 BG/RR and DP 449 BG/RR in his fields, as well as the Bollgard II technology in DP 424 BGII/RR, which allows the cotton plants to be resistant to a wider spectrum of lepidoptera and have increased efficiency against some spodopteran species and escaped bollworm larvae. He says he is also looking forward to the next generation of Roundup Ready technology that will allow applications of Roundup herbicide to be made to cotton later in the season.

“If you could apply Roundup over cotton later in the season, you could control many more weeds,” he says.

The Website, www.15inchcotton.com, will provide updates throughout the growing season on the 15-inch-row cotton plots.