The case for ultra-narrow-row (UNR) cotton is not about cotton economics, according to Sam Atwell, a pioneer of UNR cotton and a sales representative with BASF.

Rather, farmers should "put the pencil" to UNR cotton versus other crops on a particular piece of ground. If it looks better than anything else you can plant in that field, then it's got a place, ugly spots and all. Those ugly spots include an apparently arbitrary 3- to 3.5-cent discount levied against UNR cotton, just because it's UNR cotton. But Atwell, speaking at a recent UNR cotton demonstration tour, wonders if the penalty is even worth arguing about. "What it all grinds down to is maybe we need to take the discount and not worry about it."

UNR cotton does have its tradeoffs, noted Atwell. For example, while a stripper harvester removes more cotton from a given field than a spindle picker, it's also harvesting more undesirable lint and trash, which can cause problems at the gin and textile mills. Mills have indicated that UNR cotton produces more neps and white specks than spindle-picked cotton.

"I still think an automatic discount is unfair," Atwell said. "You get $15 a bale taken off just because it's not pretty anymore. Then you get another $15 off because it may have bark.

"There are producers who would like to have the extra $15. But they could also be running all the way to the bank with it because UNR beats the heck out of soybeans."

Cotton farmer Mark McNabb, who farms the UNR cotton field at the site of the tour in Somerville, Tenn., says UNR economics are looking better and better. "The equipment costs are lot cheaper in UNR," he said. "You can get by with a drill, a spray rig and a stripper versus cultivators, hooded sprayers and pickers. I figured my fuel for the tractor that I'm using was 17 cents an acre. The spraying is also faster."

McNabb planted wheat after harvest on the UNR field, which has been no-tilled for four years. Prior to planting, he burned down with Clarity to take care of the wheat, Carolina geranium, evening primrose, vetch, Pennsylvania smartweed, dock and marestail.

At planting on May 12, he burned down with Gramoxone and planted in 7.5-inch rows with a Great Plains 2020 drill. The variety was Paymaster 1218 BR at a density of 125,000 plants per acre.

He made two foliar treatments for thrips in early season and made two Roundup Ultra applications at 2-leaf and 5-leaf. He made two applications of Pix Plus, at 12th node and early bloom. He made one application of Baythroid for worms and stinkbugs on Aug. 15. On Sept. 13, he defoliated with Def and Prep, followed by a desiccation treatment of Gramoxone on Sept. 20. As of this writing, he had yet to harvest, but was hoping for an average crop yield around 800 pounds per acre.

Research indicates that UNR cotton costs about $100 an acre less to produce than wide-row cotton. But Atwell says the savings could be more. "A lot of the economics assumes that the farmer's fixed costs will remain the same. But it doesn't. It goes down, too. We use three pieces of equipment. That's it."

And Atwell believes that more cost savings are around the corner as the industry develops UNR-specific varieties, harvesters and chemistry.

In addition, scientists are discovering that there may be opportunities for additional belt tightening within the UNR production program. A study of plant population density (PPDs) in UNR cotton by Owen Gwathmey, associate professor of plant and soil sciences at the University of Tennessee, indicates that there were no significant yield responses to plant population densities above 75,000 plants per acre. (In wide-row cotton, plant populations range from 25,000 to 50,000 plants per acre).

"What we've concluded is that you need to avoid large skips in UNR cotton stands, but don't plant so dense that you're wasting money. To do this, you need some sort of a precision planter. Grain drills may not get the job done, although the one used on this field did a good job."

Atwell added that the producer has to consider a number of factors in determining the optimum PPD, including desired yield, seed costs and the impact of PPD on weed control and cotton plant size.

Gwathmey also found that both fiber length and micronaire were negatively impacted by larger PPDs, but not into the discount range. "There were significant increases in leaf discounts as we got into very high densities in 1998/99," Gwathmey said. "But generally, those densities were above the PPDs for optimum yield."

Gwathmey also found that the appearance of bark in samples were more affected by crop condition at harvest than PPD. "That runs a little contrary to popular wisdom that low densities increase bark because there are more branches."

University of Tennessee weed scientist Bob Hayes noted that weed control in UNR cotton, as in wide-row cotton, begins well before burndown. "When you're harvesting or combining, you need to make notes of what weeds are out there, the ones that escaped your weed control program. After that, it's important to start with a clean field."

Herbicide-resistant technology, a key component of UNR cotton production, can create a new problem every now and then. One has been the presence of Roundup Ready soybeans as weeds in Roundup Ready cotton. Gramoxone at planting can eliminate them early, but Hayes has seen fields where the soybeans continue to emerge as the season progresses.

"There was not a product that we tested that would give complete control of Roundup Ready soybeans. My suggestion is to do as little rotation as possible, especially with UNR cotton. You may be able to go in with a hot post-direct in wide-row. But in UNR cotton, you're going to have to go in over-the-top, and you're probably going to end up with soybeans in it."

Researchers are still trying to understand the impact of thrips in UNR cotton. According to University of Tennessee entomologist Gary Lentz, "our studies have always indicated a distinct yield advantage for in-furrow sprays for thrips in wide-row cotton."

But the same does not hold true for UNR cotton. "We can take more thrips in UNR cotton on a per-plant basis and not suffer like we do in conventional row spacing. We may be able to use (less costly) foliar sprays much more effectively in UNR than what we have in conventional row spacings."

The most economic treatment in Lentz's UNR cotton plots was a seed treatment of Orthene plus a foliar spray of Bidrin. That treatment only required 7 pounds of additional lint to break even.