Bushel of wheat pays off in no-till production system A bushel of wheat may not bring much in the commodity market these days. But it sure can make a difference in no-till cotton production. Just ask cotton producer Willie German.

German farms a little over 3,000 acres of non-irrigated, no-till cotton in Somerville, Tenn. He put up the plows and disks over a decade ago because of an urgent need to keep soil from eroding and to deal with a diminishing farm labor force in the region.

"As we started farming more and more land, with good labor being so tough to find and our highly erodible land, we needed something to hold the soil in place. We would get the land worked up like a flower bed, get a 3- to 4-inch rain and end up with all these washes out there. All your creeks would be muddy again and full of sediment."

The move to no-till not only keeps the soil in place and waters clean, but it keeps farm chemicals and fertilizers out of the Bear Creek Watershed, since these products cannot and do not run off into waterways unless they are attached to soil particles.

It also decreased German's reliance on equipment and labor. "When we were farming conventionally, at planting we had three 8-row planters, three disks going and three Do-als going. If any one of those pieces of equipment broke down, that stopped at least one planter.

"With no-till, we have three planters ready to no-till cotton and a fourth tractor ready to go in case something happens to a tractor. We can always keep those three planters going. That's how we get it in so quick. We can get it in in 10 days without really pushing hard."

A wheat cover crop has added even more benefits to no-till, according to German, including better moisture and soil conservation, the protection of young cotton seedlings and increased soil organic matter.

"Once the cover crop is burned down prior to planting, the wheat will help hold that moisture near the top of the soil profile," German said. "I don't have to chase the moisture down to put my seed in. I can keep it just the depth I want it."

After cotton emergence, the wheat cover, "will protect the young cotton seedlings from the north wind."

The wheat root system will continue to hold the soil together, even after it's killed, at least long enough for cotton to get big enough to start shading the ground and protect the soil from the impact of rain.

Another reason to grow a cover crop is to put organic matter back into the soil. "We have seen a big difference in that," the producer said. "Just a bushel of wheat will make a lot of cover. We are actually putting more organic matter back into the soil than we're taking out. And we have some farms that are continuous cotton."

This season, German burned down his wheat cover on March 25, which was a little earlier than usual because the warm winter had promoted a lot of growth in the cover crop. He planted his cotton May 12 using three Case IH no-till planters, equipped with trash removers.

All German's cotton acreage was planted in stacked gene varieties (Roundup Ready/Bollgard), planted at 45,000 plants per acre. A 4 percent refuge was planted in conventional cotton.

He planted Gaucho-treated seed and included a hopper box treatment of Ridomil, an in-furrow fungicide. Interestingly, the producer did not use a burndown herbicide or residual herbicides at planting.

"We were a little scared about not putting out Roundup at planting. But we had such a good cover crop of wheat, which kept weeds shaded and the Roundup did such a good job of killing the wheat in March. We knew we would be coming back soon with Roundup over-the-top of the young cotton."

He had to hustle, though. "You've got to be timely with it and be ready to hit that window," the producer said. "So as soon as that cotton started cracking the ground, we put the first shot out."

That application of Roundup, at a pint and a half, was begun five days after planting, May 17. He added an ounce and a half of Ammo for cutworms.

Since he hadn't put out any pre-emerge at planting, he also figured he would need a second application of Roundup. He didn't waste any time there either.

He made that application on May 24. "We didn't use anything else until layby, when we put out Karmex at a three-fourths pound an acre. That's all the herbicide this cotton crop has on it. It's the cleanest crop we've ever had."

German says that because of his no-till/wheat cover program, all of the land he farms is in better shape today than it was 10 years ago. "All the folks that let us farm their land know that we're going to take good care of it, just like we do the land we own."

One more benefit to German's no-till/wheat cover program became very evident this growing season. With little rainfall and no irrigation, the moisture-conserving characteristics of the practice seemed to delay the impact of extreme dry weather the region experienced this year. "I don't think our yields are going to suffer as much from the drought because the no-till and the wheat."