Give It A Little Light

Cotton row spacings get a new look.

Agronomy

Give It A Little Light

Cotton row spacings get a new look.

By Charles Johnson

Stop by Nick McMichen’s place near Centre, Alabama to learn a few things about cutting production expenses on cotton through innovative row patterns. At the same time, he’s keeping yields high. Both help in the tough market cotton farmers across the nation currently face.

“I’m saving $50 an acre with skip rows by reducing costs on seed and technology by 33%, plus crop insurance. At the same time, I’m gaining efficiency with the picker,” he says.

“Last year we made four-bale cotton, the best ever, so we did not cut yields by doing it. It’s pretty much a no-brainer for us. Now, we’re trying to fine tune and learn more about it.“

Savings become obvious at planting time. “We now get eight acres to a bag of seed. We got 5-1/2 acres to a bag before. When seed costs $500 a bag, that’s big savings,” he says.

Two by one. His pattern, with two 30-inch rows and a 60-inch skip, is really nothing new. Cotton growers used it years ago for different reasons.

“It’s called a two by one skip. It was popular here in the mid-1980s because of the federal acreage allotment program. If a grower had a 66-acre allotment, let’s say, he could plant a full 100-acre farm with skip row,” he says.

McMichen sees plenty of benefits to the practice. Nutrients get applied just to actual rows, further reducing costs. More sunlight reaches the plants, maximizing photosynthesis.

Few of us walk any road alone, and McMichen didn’t, either. He consulted with friends Neal Isbell and Sam Spruell, who use the skip row pattern on their northwest Alabama farms. “They’re very innovative, very good farmers who have amazing ideas and insight. They’ve helped me a lot. When I have a question, I can just pick up a phone and call them.”

In McMichen’s corner of northeast Alabama, cotton remains a major crop, in contrast with some other areas in the Southeast and Delta. This year he planted 1,400 acres of cotton, much the same as in 2015.

“Cotton has been such a major part of life here, so intertwined with the history and the economics of this area, it would be hard to walk away from it. Plus, grains don’t look that great right now, either. Those of us still involved with cotton think of ourselves as cotton farmers. We’re proud of it. We do a good job with it. We get good yields,” he says.

“With the prices we’re seeing, it’s important to hold the line on input costs, though. I’ll be honest. I was a little skeptical about skip rows. Charles Burmester, who was the Extension agronomist in north Alabama, put in a test plot with two rows around a skip. We picked and weighed it. It had to make 33% more to make up for the skip. This plot made 50% more. That got me very interested in skip rows.”

The best ever. Last year, McMichen planted just about every acre of cotton in the skip row pattern. The results impressed him. “We averaged 1,300 pounds per acre. We had some four-bale cotton. I can’t say that skip rows hurt me at all. We were blessed with some timely rains last year. But I think the cotton on skip rows had better air flow and aeration, so diseases weren’t a problem. The cotton plants looked healthy and vigorous. They were putting the nutrients and energy into producing fiber. That’s the name of the game here, more fiber.”

He bought a roller picker to handle all that fiber. “It picks six rows. It would be nine 30-inch rows, in a conventional pattern. This picker can be set up on different configurations. The efficiency gained with the picker is one of the biggest advantages of using the skip row system,” he says.

It’s all part of evaluating and improving techniques year after year.

“We’re just farming more and more intensively, which is what we’re forced to do, really. We simply have to be a lot more diligent now. When crop prices were higher, like when corn was $8 a bushel or cotton up toward $1 a pound, planting for a high population was no problem. If we were in doubt about something, like fertilizer or fungicide, we could just go ahead and apply extra if we thought the crop might need it. Those days are over. If we aren’t certain that it’s going to push yield, then the crop doesn’t need that input,” McMichen says.

He considers all angles to keep this long-time family farm located near the Coosa River on solid footing.

“We stay in a dedicated rotation of cotton, soybeans and corn, and have to be the most frugal and efficient we can be with each crop,” he says.

Eye opportunities. “In addition to the agronomic things, I pay attention to marketing opportunities. We use options to protect ourselves. I’m looking at any opportunity we have to make the business profitable. If it’s something in the field, that’s good. If it’s something with our marketing plan, that’s just as good,” he says.

“I look at it all as opportunity. I want to see how good I can be. Every opportunity is a learning experience. It’s my job to make all this come together and work. I look at everything as a chance to make me better.”

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