It's been three years since Rick Smythe of Tribbett, Miss., moved from skip-row cotton to solid cotton, but still passersby on the road near his fields slow and take a closer look. Something about the cotton catches the eye. Something seems a little different. That difference is one of the widest row patterns in production in the Mid-South.
Smythe plants his 900 acres of cotton on 50-inch rows with no skip. Most of his neighbors plant solid cotton, too, but on more-conservative 38-inch or 40-inch rows.
Smythe plants on the wider rows with the goal of saving on input costs while maintaining the same yields as solid cotton could provide.
He saves up to 20 percent on all his down-the-row applications and in seed costs. And, by providing his cotton with an additional 5 inches of soil on each side, the plants have access to additional moisture and nutrients and have the potential to yield as much per land acre as solid cotton.
“My philosophy is that the roots of the plant go out as far as the canopy on 40-inch rows, and in a good year, the roots will cross and that leaves them competing for moisture and nutrients,” says Smythe. “If I can spread out the row another 10 inches, the plants aren't competing with the plants on the next row. You want your plants to canopy and lap, but you don't want them to compete.
“If the canopy doesn't lap in the 50-inch rows, then I'm hurting myself more than helping. The same is true for any row width. If the plants don't lap, you are wasting land and inputs.”
After three years of putting his theory to the test, Smythe still hasn't had an ideal growing season to make true comparisons. Given the circumstances of each year, however, his non-irrigated 50-inch cotton has held up well enough to keep him trying.
In 2000, a hot, dry year, his yields were about 640 pounds of lint per land acre. “It was so dry the leaves came off, and we didn't have cotton lapping that year,” he says.
In 2001, when excessive rains caused extensive boll rot in Smythe's region of the state, he managed a little over 700 pounds to the land acre, but estimates he lost at least 20 percent of the crop to hard-lock bolls and boll rot. In 2002, Smythe had a good growing season, but hurricanes and excessive rain delayed picking by up to six weeks and left lint on the ground instead of in the picker.
“We picked a couple of days early in the season, before all the rain, and we were picking 800 pounds per land acre with probably 100 pounds of lint still to scrap,” he says. “And that first cotton wasn't my best cotton. I'm pretty sure we would have picked 1,000 pounds per land acre on the better cotton.”
Smythe's 50-inch rows required adaptations in planting and harvesting equipment. He picks with a four-row and two-row picker and says picking efficiency is one of the biggest savings in his entire operation.
“My picker savings are tremendous. I only have to pick 80 acres of cotton to take care of 100 acres of land,” he explains. “That's big. I have 900-plus land acres, but I only have to pick 720 acres of cotton.” He adds, however, that one drawback is that his pickers are the only ones anywhere around that can pick his cotton. If he had been on standard rows, he could have brought in additional pickers this season and maybe saved some of his lint.
He's also found that weed control — particularly morningglories — is a little tougher in the 50-inch cotton, but he still opts to plant conventional cotton varieties and use cultivation to keep the cotton rows clean.
The system is not one without challenges, but Smythe believes he can make it work.
“My goal is to make as much cotton as someone planting on 40-inch rows, but with the 20 percent savings.
“I save about 20 percent on seed. I save 20 percent on direct spray. I save about 20 percent on all my inputs but fertility. I'm not going to save on fertility because I'm going to put the same amount per land acre. I believe you get more dollars out of fertility than you do out of any other thing except maybe the seed.”
Smythe says the 50-inch rows are not something a grower would want to try for just one year, and even after three years, he's still not seen enough to know if his way is really any better or worse than traditional solid cotton.
But he's going to try it another year. He's already rowed up his fallowed cotton land to 50-inch rows.
“I'm not sticking with it just because I don't want to admit I'm wrong,” he says. “I really believe in the theory. I always believed in skip-row cotton, and this is just an adaptation of that. It's a proven fact that you can make more cotton down the row in skip-row cotton than you can in solid cotton.”