It's not enough to simply protect the land you're farming — you also need to make it better. That's the guiding philosophy of Billy Sanders, the 2004 Farm Press High Cotton Award winner from the Southeast Region.

“Environmental stewardship is vitally important to our farming operation,” says Sanders, who along with his son Johnny and nephew David farms 2,900 acres of cotton and 750 acres of peanuts in Dooly County, Ga. Another 4,000 acres is in pine trees.

Protecting and improving the land is a family tradition for Sanders. He is the fourth generation to farm the same south Georgia fields. His son represents the fifth generation and, hopefully, his grandson will be the sixth.

“If we don't do whatever we can to protect the land — not only protect it, but make it better — there will be nothing to leave our children and grandchildren,” he says. “Working with the Soil and Water District, I've recognized that a lot of political things come into play. But I think we should tie everything together for the benefit of both the farmer and the environment.”

Sanders is recognized as a Georgia pioneer in the use of conservation-tillage and cover crops. His entire cotton and peanut crops are strip-tilled, planted into heavy cover crop residue.

“The main thrust of our conservation-tillage program is in utilizing and maximizing the benefits of cover crops. We've looked for innovative ways of handling heavy residue in a strip-tillage system, and we've made progress over the years,” he says.

Sanders is working with wheat and triticale as cover crops, and he has come to prefer triticale.

“We have stopped using rye as a cover crop,” he says. “Our real choice now is triticale. It has the root system of rye, but it doesn't have rye's rankness.

In 2002, Sanders' highest yielding cotton was planted behind triticale. “Our irrigated, full-season cotton in 2002 looked very good and appeared to have good potential, but boll rot was very damaging. The cotton was trying to open at a time that didn't work for us. But with the cotton planted behind triticale, we had good weather when the cotton was opening, and we made a little more than 1,300 pounds per acre. The other cotton made from 1,000 to 1,150 pounds per acre.”

Triticale ordinarily can be harvested by May 15, says Sanders. “We harvest just enough cover crop for our seed. The remainder is burned down. We do some of our strip-till prior to burn down to allow the cover crop to mature. It also helps us to spread our workload.”

The majority of Sanders' farmland is not irrigated, by necessity. “Ideally, we'd like to have big fields that are shaped to accommodate a pivot system. But we don't, and we're not going to change the shape of our fields. We have to play the hand that was dealt to us. We have put a lot of our short rows and corners into pine trees.”

He began planting strip-till cotton in the early 1980s. “Our first objective when planting cotton is to have maturity in the cover crop. And maturity means having residue that will last. Some growers are making a terrible mistake by terminating their cover crop too early. They burn it down before it's ever booted out. They might have done themselves some good, but the residue won't stay on the ground. We have residue on the ground throughout the season.”

Sanders usually starts planting cotton on or about April 15, when the soil temperatures begin to warm up to Extension recommendations. The strip-tillage operation is done several weeks ahead of planting in some fields and at planting in others.

“If there's a good bit of moisture in the soil, we might wait a day or a half a day before planting to give it time to dry.”

In 2002, Sanders put out Prowl with the burndown treatment and was not pleased with the results. “We put out Prowl this past year after we burned down and after we strip-tilled, and we had some problems. Prowl is getting caught up in the residue and isn't doing the job that we need it to do.

“We have been putting out fertilizer in the fall, for the cover crop and the cotton crop. But we're going to change that and fertilize at some point before the strip-till operation — either before or after burndown. It shouldn't make much difference because it can be done either way.”

Sanders isn't sure how he'll handle the application of a yellow herbicide. It's needed in his fields, he says, for pigweed and buffalograss.

Roundup Ready cotton, says Sanders, has worked well with his conservation-tillage system. “I'm hoping we'll have other options real soon — options that'll be economical. Spraying over-the-top and stopping at the four-leaf stage doesn't give us all we really need. I hope we'll have other choices that'll help us with different weed problems.”