When David Hundley's hooded sprayer worked to perfection in 1999, 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 Bay, Ark., cotton producer began a shift toward no-till cotton production and big savings in fuel and equipment costs.
Hundley, who started farming full-time in 1999, didn't 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.”
The producer had assumed a large capital outlay getting started, which might have been a blessing in disguise. He subsequently had put off several equipment purchases that first year, hiring out all his tillage, planting and harvesting.
He had every intention of going with conventional tillage the following year, although reducing trips was a priority. Still, he was looking at some potentially expensive purchases.
But during the season, Hundley 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.
The producer realized that other conservation practices might further reduce equipment needs and input costs. So, he added another hooded sprayer and bought no-till attachments for his planter for $150 a row.
His no-till program started to fall into place. He expanded it in 2000, and by the end of the year, the producer had replaced two 200-horsepower tractors with one lower horsepower tractor. The cost savings kept 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.”
That included coming up with new ideas to reduce tillage. Last fall, Hundley built an air-seeding rig, which will simultaneously maintain an irrigation furrow and establish a wheat cover crop, a must in northeastern Arkansas.
“If you don't have a cover crop, the Mother's Day Massacre will get you every year,” said Hundley, referring to the unfailing May winds which can destroy unprotected young seedlings.
Hundley's cotton ground is all irrigated — 90 percent furrow irrigated down every other middle, the rest under center pivots. However, his raised beds flatten quickly on the farm's sandy soils, so the producer has had to occasionally re-hip over old rows to maintain the irrigation furrow.
The new air seeding rig, which will run after the stalk cutter in the fall, will drill two rows of wheat in alternate middles, while sweeps clear out the irrigation middles. The rig will reduce both tillage and costs. “I can get by with about 24 pounds of wheat seed per acre by planting alternate middles, where before I was putting out 60 pounds per acre.”
This year, Hundley will fertilize only in the watered middle. “We noticed where we watered every other middle last year, it was so dry, we had fertilizer that never got any water. We didn't use that nitrogen.”
Hundley's consultant, Eddy Cates, Cates Agri Services, says no-till adds another level of protection against windblown sand on lighter ground. But it also has benefits on the producer's 700 acres of heavier ground.
“The cotton planted so much easier. The ground went through a freezing and thawing process and the soil was so mellow that we were able to plant at the same depth all the way through the field and get a uniform stand. And we didn't have to worry about a rain crusting the soil.”
Hundley has noticed a shift in weed spectrum 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, about one-third of Hundley's acreage was planted to Stoneville ST 4892 BR and the rest in Paymaster varieties. This year, about half his acreage will be planted in ST 4892 BR, and ST 4793 R. All cotton ground, except for a 4 percent refuge, will be planted in Bt cotton.
“In the back of my mind, I'm still open on varieties,” Hundley said. “It wouldn't surprise me a bit if two years from now I'll be back to planting Buctril resistant cotton, just to keep from getting resistant weeds. I'm very open-minded about changing that chemistry. I don't think Roundup is all I ever use.”
Hundley, a former gin manager, keeps a close eye on quality too. “The last two years, I've gotten 99 percent of what's available in premiums. I know that it's a concern with a lot of people that the Stoneville varieties have more leaf.
“But I learned a long time ago in the ginning business. It doesn't take much additional turnout to offset a leaf discount. For instance, a two percent turnout is about 30 pounds of lint per bale, which is $18 at 60-cent cotton. A leaf 5 is about a $15 discount. So a two percent turnout can easily offset a leaf 5.
“I plan for a 41-4 base and a 36 percent turnout. I think it will gross more dollars. That's one of the reasons why I've stayed with varieties with the ST 474 parentage. Yes, you're going to have some occasional leaf 5s, but that turnout is always going to be 36-38 percent.
The cotton producer's yields have been around 700 pounds the last two years, across 1,700 acres. “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 Cates, “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.”