Bootheel growers try implements to help establish wheat A wheat cover crop is a good option for cotton producers looking to create a barrier to protect young seedlings from blowing sand and high winds. But managing the wheat can be a problem if you don't have the right equipment and tillage practice.

Most growers who use wheat as a cover crop go with no-till or strip-till to prepare the bed for cotton planting. In strip-till, middles are no-tilled, leaving some type of residue like wheat in the middles as protection against soil erosion and wind. The seedbed is conventionally tilled, primarily to achieve good seed-to-soil contact.

After an especially tough season of blowing sand and wind in 2000, many northeast Arkansas and southeast Missouri cotton producers are stepping up their efforts to find a strip-till/wheat system that works best for them.

Clifton Dixon, who is owner-operator of PATS (Precision Application Tillage Systems), based in North Carolina, has been touring the Mid-South region demonstrating several implements that could help.

For example, the PATS Rip-Strip-Till implement consists of six individual units, which operate on flat or raised beds. The implement performs several functions in a single pass and disturbs soil only in the seedbed.

First, a shank equipped with a specially designed point to prevent blowouts rips 9 to 14 inches deep. It's followed by a roller basket, which chops up clods, then a roller which firms up the bed. It creates a wide, smooth planting surface while leaving the wheat undisturbed in the middles.

With 6,000 acres of cotton, David Wildy of Manila, Ark., is not making any quick decisions about buying new implements. But he's sure of one thing: a wheat cover crop needs to be part of his cotton production program.

In 2000, the producer air-seeded wheat in the middles on about 2,000 acres of cotton. The rest of his 4,000 acres was tilled conventionally. "This was the worst spring for blowing since I've been farming," Wildy said. "We had about 800 acres severely damaged, and we replanted about 200 acres. The difference between that and the cotton with wheat was like daylight and dark."

Wildy wants to expand the practice, but he's not completely satisfied with the way he's doing it now. One problem is that wheat in the middles grew so tall that it lapped over the bed, creating some concern that it could interfere with planting.

At planting, Wildy used a Do-all to knock a little bit of the top of the bed off. "I thought I needed to knock that dry dirt off and plant. A lot people had rolled the ground when they planted the wheat and they just went in there and planted.

"I've always thought that if I got that bed flat and ready to plant early, that it would dry it out and I wouldn't get my cotton up. Maybe I've got to learn that that's the old way, that I don't have to worry about that. But I still do. I'm new at it, trying to learn."

Another problem is that the Do-all performs as a single, continuous unit across the tops of Wildy's raised beds and is not as precise as he would like it to be. That's something the Rip-Strip-Till could address.

"What has started us to looking at strip-till and wheat was to save our cotton crop in the spring," Wildy said. "At the same time, we're trying to do it economically, hopefully where we can save us some costs and tillage. We are realizing that we don't have to work this ground as much as we used to."

Dixon is also demonstrating a DL Industries stalk puller. The implement works well in the northernmost latitudes of the Cotton Belt, where old cotton stalks may not deteriorate sufficiently prior to planting. It's a better alternative to a lot disking, noted Dixon.

There is also some research from the University of Florida indicating that nematode populations are higher in the rows than in the middles after several years of stale seedbed production, which indicates that the stalks could be hosts for the pests.

A producer can attach a Gandy Orbit Air applicator-seeder to the stalk-pulling operation to broadcast wheat. In the spring, a producer could come in with a strip-kill operation, according to Dixon.

Any cultivator equipped with hoods can do the job, according to Dixon. Use the implement to kill the wheat in a band over the seedbed. Dixon noted that there are Roundup savings from strip-killing wheat "and doing it earlier in the season reduces the amount of root mass that you have to deal with at planting. That results in a more uniform seedbed."

At that time, you could also use an air seeder to fertilize in those bands, according to Dixon.