Everything about skip-row cotton, we love — it has made us profitable again,” says Keith Morton, who with his wife, Beth, farms 1,000 acres in the north Mississippi hills near Falkner, just south of the Tennessee line.
Even so, this fall he's planning, based on research on his farm the past three years, to switch to a 60-inch row system, with the first crop slated for the 2007 season.
“This system may not yield as much as 38-inch solid cotton,” he said at the ninth annual National Conservation Systems Cotton and Rice Conference at Robinsonville, Miss., “but I believe it will make more money and that we'll be able to increase soybean yields on the raised beds.”
His farm is divided equally between cotton and soybeans and is all no-till, non-irrigated.
Morton, who grew up on a farm and learned the business from his father, says the family farm ran into financial difficulties in 2000. Working with Mississippi State University economists and agronomists, he started growing 2×1 skip-row cotton, which helped reduce costs and increase yields.
The one drawback to the skip-row system, Morton says, is that “it's hard to rotate with beans; in most cases, we plant cotton for three years, then switch to beans. This allows the cotton beds enough time to flatten down so we can no-till behind.”
Since switching from conventional to skip-row, he says, cotton yields have been averaging about 830 pounds per acre and the 15-inch solid-planted beans have a five-year average of 46 bushels.
In an attempt to further refine his production methods, Morton has been cooperating with the Mississippi State specialists on a research project that compares 15-inch row solid cotton production and variations (30-inch, 60-inch, etc.) with conventional 38-inch rows.
After three years of research and personal observation, he says the narrow row system has produced higher yields and more yield stability on mixed soils; among disadvantages are the need for a specialized harvester, a more expensive planter, more plant growth regulator, and no options for lay-by or late-season weed control. “When harvesting costs are figured in, overall net returns are lower.”
With the 60-inch system, Morton says, lower seeding rates will reduce the cost of seed and technology fees, using a planter with fewer units will cost less, and once 60-inch beds are established, rotation with soybeans and corn will be simpler. “The greatest advantage is using a four-row cotton picker that harvests 20 feet in a pass.”
The system calls for 60-inch beds, with 120-inch wheel tracks. All field operations will run in multiples of 20 feet and all wheel traffic will be controlled. On the 60-inch beds, he'll have the flexibility to plant one row of solid cotton or two rows of 15-inch 2×2 skip, two rows of 30-inch corn, or three rows of 20-inch soybeans.
“Our objectives with this system are to increase net profits, to be able to no-till all crops, and to reduce input costs while striving for better yields. We hope this will allow us the flexibility to rotate or plant any one crop anywhere at any time if market conditions change just prior to planting.”