Researchers help cotton take cover from whipping winds

VERNON, TEXAS – Winds sweeping across the Texas plains mow down almost 10 percent of the state's cotton annually, according to a researcher at the Texas A&M University System Research and Extension Center.

Damage to seedling cotton can be prevented with cover crops, without loss of moisture needed to make cotton lint, said Todd Baughman, Texas Agricultural Experiment Station/Extension agronomist.

Baughman's cotton cover crop research will be featured at the centennial anniversary of the Chillicothe Research Station on Sept. 29.

For the past five years, he has experimented with wheat and rye as cover crops, including when to plant, where to plant and when to terminate the cover crops. A cover crop is planted in the fall and remains standing until the new cotton is about a month old.

In addition to protecting the young cotton, the cover crop can reduce the labor required to hold the soil in place during the winter, Baughman said. It also allows producers to work under no-till conditions.

"If you were to leave that ground bare after cotton harvest, without doing some kind of tillage, we'd have a tremendous amount of blowing sand," he said. "This gives us the potential to do some no-till without (the soil) blowing during the winter time."

Three years of study looked at spacing: planting two rows of cover between each row of cotton; planting in every other row of cotton; planting in every fourth row; and in every eighth row. The spacing study is trying to determine a pattern to limit wind damage, but minimize the amount of moisture required to maintain the cover crop.

Baughman also looked at terminating the wheat or rye before the head came out or when 50 percent of the heads emerge. More emerged heads means better wind protection, he said, but as it matures, it uses more moisture.

For no-till applications, he ran a strip till unit, tilling between the wheat or rye prior to planting cotton. That was the only tillage to those plots for a three-year period.

The initial three years of research found:

– There was no difference in cotton yield found between use of rye or wheat cover, but rye was much better for wind protection.

– Terminating at different stages resulted in no difference in cotton lint yield, but the 50 percent headed cover crop provided better wind protection.

– There was no difference due to row pattern in lint yield, but the every-row pattern performed best for wind protection.

In the past two years, the study examined termination timing of the cover crop. Terminations were made at the boot stage and 10 percent, 25 percent, 50 percent, 75 percent and 100 percent heading stages, as well as two weeks prior to planting cotton, Baughman said.

"In the first study, we didn't see a difference. But we feel like there will be some time in the growth stage when it will have an affect on cotton lint," he said. "We want to get an idea for large producers how early they can start terminating and how soon they need to be finished."

Only about 1 percent of producers planted cover crops five years ago, he said. About 5 percent to 10 percent do now, Baughman said, and he hopes that number continues to grow as his research results get out.

Added cost in establishing a cover crop – added tillage and equipment – along with the concern for loss of moisture and subsequent reduced cotton yield, have kept some from adapting the practice, he said.

"In four of five years with cover crops, we have not affected lint yields," Baughman said. "There are additional costs in establishing and terminating the cover crop, but a benefit is we have no fall or winter tillage on that land and no expenses in fighting sand."

As producers' operations get larger, it's more difficult to find labor to plow the fields during the winter and fight sand during the spring, he said. "In our operation, a guy could get by with a lot less labor than what he could under a traditional system."

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