IN 1999, David Hundley won a small battle against weeds with a hooded sprayer. Today, he's winning a war against tillage with it and other conservation tools, although he stresses, “I'm still doing a lot of experimenting.”

Hundley, who started farming full-time in 1999, did not have a lot of faith in conservation tillage in the beginning. “I was probably as big an opponent as anyone to no-till cotton five or six years ago. I always felt like you had to rip to get that taproot down.”

But during the 1999 season, the Bay, Ark., cotton producer found that the hooded sprayer, at about half the cost of a cultivator, took care of all his weed problems, even in conventional cotton varieties. He didn't run a cultivator through a cotton field at all in 1999.

Right then, something clicked in the producer's mind. If he didn't have to cultivate his cotton crop, maybe he wouldn't need to rip and hip and knock the beds down before planting either.

With that in mind, the cotton producer began a shift toward no-till cotton production and big savings in fuel and equipment costs.

He soon added another hooded sprayer and bought no-till attachments for his planter for $150 a row. By the end of 2000, the producer had replaced two 200-horsepower tractors with one lower horsepower tractor. The cost savings started piling up.

“The first year (1999) I farmed I burned seven and a half tanker loads of diesel,” Hundley said. “Last year, I burned about four tanker loads. A little bit here and little bit there helps.”

After cutting the stalks in the fall where wheat was sown, Hundley applied 0-30-80 fertilizer with a buggy. Where wheat was not sown, he made the application in March. Last year, Hundley put the wheat cover crop on 600 acres.

This coming fall, he plans to sow wheat on all his 1,750 acres, in effect, going to a 100 percent no-till cotton operation. “A wheat cover crop is a must in northeastern Arkansas. If you don't have one, the Mother's Day Massacre will get you every year,” said Hundley, referring to the May winds, which can destroy unprotected young seedlings.

This spring, Hundley built an air-seeding rig which will drill two rows of wheat in alternate middles, while sweeps clear out the remaining irrigation middles. The rig will reduce both tillage and costs.

“I can get by with about 20 pounds of wheat by planting alternate middles, where before I was putting out 60 pounds per acre. So, I should be able to do all my acreage this fall with the same pounds of wheat that I used for 600 acres last year.”

Sweeping out the alternate middles is the only soil disturbance made on Hundley's cotton ground and that is minimal. He doesn't think it's necessary to rebuild his beds. “We put a bed up to have moisture to plant in. But if you have no-till, you're going to have moisture. The height of the bed is not an issue as long as you can irrigate. And we feel like we're addressing that with sweeping out the furrows.”

This year, Hundley burned his wheat down on April 10, but next year, he hopes to wait until the wheat is killed by his first over-the-top application of Roundup®, if everything goes according to plan. That's another trip saved.

He plans to apply a half-pound of Zorial behind the planter for pigweeds. “That's the only chemical that will go out pre-plant. This year, we came back over the top with two 18-ounce applications of Roundup UltraMAX herbicide after planting.

“As soon as we're comfortable we can get a stand of cotton that's going to carry us through the year, we start spraying,” Hundley said of his over-the-top timing. “Then we came back through with a hooded sprayer, applying Roundup in the middles and post-directing Bladex® and MSMA®.”

That was it for weed control in 2000. “Dollar for dollar, it is not that much cheaper than what I would call conventional weed control. But at the same time, I'm seeing some benefits that are hard for me to put a value on.”

Hundley said one was that he was able to wait longer before irrigating, which might have saved an irrigation.

“I was the last one in my area to start watering this year, and it was because the cotton was not hurting,” he noted. “We hadn't been through it four or five times with the cultivator.

“Also, every time you plow and water, you get another crop of weeds. I've been through my cotton three times since planting, and I know I've saved some diesel.”

Hundley has noticed the shift in weed spectrum that many new no-tillers observe since he went to no-till. But he's adapted, too, by changing his cotton varieties.

“Three or four years ago, we were having trouble with morningglory and cocklebur. So we planted some BXN 47. “Now our problems are nutsedge and pigweed. The Buctril® won't help there, so we went with the Roundup Ready® cotton varieties.”

Last year, one-third of Hundley's acreage was planted to Stoneville ST 4892 BR and the rest in Paymaster varieties. This year, one-third will be in ST 4892 BR, one-third in ST 4793 R and the remaining third in Paymaster, Delta and Pine Land and Sure-Grow. Hundley is going with a 20-percent refuge option.

The cotton producer's yields have been around 700 pounds the last two years. “I had some farms that went close to 1,400 pounds. But I had some places where it was so dry. Those areas pulled my yields down.”

Hundley credits his consultant, Eddy Cates, Cates Agri Services, “for holding my hand” through the transition to no-till. “Every time I pull up a stalk, I'll have a taproot as long as I've ever had. The tilth of the soil is totally different. It's not cloddy. You couldn't have made me believe that five years ago.”

“I thought it would work out well for David,” Cates added. “It's a little different for all my farmers the first year. No-till is kind of ugly in the beginning. But usually by the first of June, growers are tickled to death with it.”