Cover crops in furrows protect seedlings and soil

Every year blowing sand may be damaging thousands of acres of Texas High Plains cotton. Much of that acreage often needs replanted, says Randy Boman, Texas Cooperative Extension cotton agronomist at Lubbock.

“Sand-damaged cotton is more susceptible to seedling disease, nematodes, and perhaps insects, and replanting may sometimes be the best alternative.

“But replanting incurs costs for seed, labor and machinery use. In some instances, replanting may also require additional inputs for irrigation, herbicides, insecticides and fungicides. Other considerations regarding replanting may include crop insurance coverage, farm program options, and the yield-price outlook for alternative crops. Also, replanting can result in reduced yields and fiber quality if the growing season is not adequate.”

Wayne Keeling, systems agronomist with the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station at Lubbock, says cover crops may help.

“Planting cotton into terminated small grains is a soil-conservation practice that can greatly reduce the probability of having to replant cotton damaged by blowing sand,” Keeling says.

“Researchers with the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station at Lubbock and the USDA Agricultural Research Service at Big Spring developed the practice, and it is being widely used by cotton producers in the sandy land areas south and west of Lubbock,” Keeling says. “This practice has spread to other High Plains areas as it controls wind erosion, regardless of soil type.”

Planting into a cover is used primarily on irrigated land.

“This practice begins with establishment of an adequate cover crop in furrows following cotton harvest in the fall. The producer can plant a cover crop of small grains (usually wheat or rye) in the furrows in two to four rows spaced about 6 inches apart. The planting operation can be performed in the standing cotton stalks.”

Immediately after seeding, the producer may need to irrigate to ensure establishment of the cover crop, and depending on subsequent use of the cover crop, he may need to apply additional irrigation.

After the cover crop is established, the producer has several options, any one of which will normally prevent wind-erosion until the next year's cotton crop is established.

  1. Grow the cover crop to the “jointing” stage or later, then kill it with glyphosate herbicide. Residue from plants killed too early will quickly decompose. On the other hand, killing plants too late may result in excess moisture use by the cover crop.

  2. Grow the cover crop for hay or grain. If grown for grain, however, there may be an insufficient growing season to produce a cotton crop of high yield and quality.

  3. Graze the cover crop but remove cattle early enough for adequate ground cover to remain. The availability of Roundup Ready Flex technology in numerous cotton varieties can make this a viable option if sufficient moisture is available.

In the spring, the producer plants cotton on the beds, leaving the residue in the furrows to protect seedlings from blowing sand. After cotton plants are large enough to provide their own protection, the residue can be tilled in or maintained with no-till practices.

Furrow-planting cover crops can also be used in rotations with various other spring-planted crops such as peanuts, sorghum, and potatoes.

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