Coley Bailey Jr. and his father, Coley Bailey Sr. should thank a local paper mill for increasing their average yield by 400 pounds on one cotton field in 2001. But earlier that year, they thought they had a huge mess on their hands.
The paper mill is within a stone's throw of the Bailey's farming operation near Coffeeville, Miss. The mill processes hundreds of tons of wood products every day, creating an ash by-product high in nutrients beneficial to cropping operations.
“The mill used to give farmers the ash by-product for their farm fields,” Coley Jr. explained. “You get potash, phosphate and micronutrient benefits from it. One of their requirements is that it has to be disked in at the end of every day.
“One day in November, they put the ash on a field with highly-erodible soil. We weren't supposed to disturb the soil until March 15. By the time I got there, it had already been disked up. We called our soil conservationist who told us we could row up and plant a cover crop on it. We sowed wheat and had a beautiful stand in a couple of weeks.”
But when the Baileys burned down the wheat and planted into the stubble the following spring, they couldn't see the rows to plant on. “I was planting and my father and one of our hands stood on both ends, and I drove in between them. When we pulled out of the field, my dad said this was the worst mess he'd ever made in all his years of farming.”
That year was a dry one, and the field made about 1,100 pounds while a field right next to it made 700 pounds. The Baileys were impressed enough to expand the cover crop program, and implemented a couple of techniques to ease earlier problems. “Today we plant it on every acre every year. In a dry year, 400 pounds is the most yield increase we've seen. But even in an average year (for moisture), it will increase yield by 200 pounds.”
These days, 100 pounds of wheat is flown into the cotton crop somewhere around Sept. 15, prior to defoliation.
After picking, Bailey will cut cotton stalks about 12 inches high. The taller stalks “break over easier when our no-till planters hit them. And because they're a little different color than the wheat, the stalks provide a line of sight so our planter drivers know where to go.”
They apply Roundup to kill the wheat about 10 to 15 days before planting. As the cotton emerges, the wheat serves as a windbreak and holds moisture longer, according to Bailey, who can irrigate about 300 of the operation's 2,400 acres of cotton.
Prior to introducing wheat to their production program, the producers would usually go with a two-step burndown. But the wheat cover suppresses weed growth, meaning one application is all they need. The savings from not making that application is usually enough to pay for the wheat seed and application, according to Bailey.
The Baileys plant with two 12-row John Deere, no-till planters, finishing in about six days. Varieties include DP 555 BG/RR on the majority of the acreage. Bailey's refuge cotton is DP 432 RR. This year, he also planted 70 acres of DP 445 BG/RR and 75 acres of FM 960 BR.
Bailey puts 5 pounds of Temik in-furrow for thrips and to guard against nematodes. “We also use Uniform (Quadris and Ridomil Gold) in-furrow. We're planting into a wheat cover crop and it may be a little damp from holding moisture. We didn't think we could get enough protection from a seed treatment alone.”
But the wheat does protect cotton from other elements. “We've had 6 inches of rain run us out of the field while we were planting cotton into the cover crop. The cotton came right up. There's no compaction. The closing wheels on our planters don't pack around the seed. Even a hard-packing won't crust the soil.”
They make a couple of over-the-top Roundup applications. Some fields with a history of morningglories may receive Staple with the first over-the-top shot of Roundup. Then they make a couple of run-throughs with a hooded sprayer, running just Roundup. Again, the wheat stubble remains long enough to keep a lot of weeds under control, allowing Bailey to not use a residual herbicide at burndown or at layby.
Bailey is also looking at a 5-acre test plot of Bollgard II/Roundup Ready Flex cotton. “You don't worry about missing your application window. It's going to be interesting to see how it yields.”
Bailey sprayed Bidrin for thrips this season on an as-need basis. “Plant bugs and stink bugs are two pests that we have had to hammer and hammer.” They put out Diamond for plant bugs at the nymph stage and Bidrin for stink bugs. Somewhere around the first week of June, Bailey sidedresses N-Sol.
At defoliation, Bailey goes with a one-step program of Finish and Dropp. “We put out a boll opening rate of Finish and Dropp, come back and pick in about 10 days.”
At this point in the season, mid-August, the Baileys “don't have a huge crop, but if we can get another couple of rains, we'll make two bales. That's just unbelievable. We've hung around at the 800-pound level for years, then we hit a two-bale crop and couldn't believe it. Then we did it two more years.”
Another key to consistent two-bale yields in dryland cotton are the Baileys' consultants, Tye and Mike Edwards, who have been working on the farm since 1996.
“We get our cotton checked three times a week, every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. It costs a couple of dollars more an acre to do it, but it gives us an incredible amount of knowledge of what is going on in the field,” Bailey said. “Our consultants walk every field every other day.”
Bailey noted that his consultant might report on Wednesday that he has to spray for plant bugs on 1,500 acres. “We could get three High Boys going and be through by Thursday night. If we scouted twice a week on Monday and Friday, we might not have caught it until Friday.
“Being timely like that gives us an advantage. The only thing that is going to keep me in business while somebody else may go out is the management of the crop. I have to do a better job.”