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An Unlikely Pair

Plan Now For Double-Cropped Cotton Behind Wheat
   

By Carroll Smith
Senior Writer


It is enough to make you do a double take while driving down the highway and observing how much cotton was double-cropped behind wheat this year, especially across Louisiana.

The 235,000 acres of wheat planted for the 2007 season in Louisiana rose to 400,000 acres in 2008 as farmers rushed to take advantage of the high prices. Instead of soybeans or milo, in many instances some farmers decided to follow the wheat with cotton – traditionally an unlikely pair. Louisiana cotton specialist Sandy Stewart estimates that about 30,000 cotton acres are double-cropped behind wheat this year in the state.

Larry Sayes, who farms near Vick, La., says he planted wheat flat last year, mainly for grazing his cattle. Before the season was over, he had changed his mind.

“On Feb. 20 when the wheat market got so strong, I ran the cows off, fertilized the wheat and decided to make grain,” he says. “It was moist when we cut the wheat, so I didn’t burn the stubble, but my John Deere STS combine mulched it up real well.”

Sayes then disked the ground twice, rowed up, rolled it down tight and planted cotton.

“We cut wheat on May 20, and on May 25 the cotton was popping out of the ground,” he says. “We have 75 acres of double-cropped cotton (dryland) following wheat. Even though it was a little dry this summer, so far it looks pretty good.”

Sayes says he chose to plant cotton on those acres instead of soybeans or milo because the soil was sandy and droughty, which is more suited to cotton. Since it’s dryland, he was afraid the soybeans might not make it, and he says milo following wheat doesn’t work for them because of troublesome insect problems.

The Louisiana farmer says he plans to use the double-cropped cotton following wheat system again in 2009 although he expects to be more prepared than he was this year.

“I plan to plant the wheat on rows so I can plant no-till cotton right behind the combine,” Sayes explains.

Keeping Options Open

Crop consultant Roger Carter, Agricultural Management Services, Inc., also farms some land near Clayton, La. This year, he is double cropping about 60 acres of dryland cotton behind wheat for the first time. He says planting cotton in June is a better alternative than grain sorghum and is riskier than beans because more money is involved. However, yield-wise cotton has more potential.

Carter also says that he chose to double-crop some of his cotton (instead of soybeans) behind wheat because he has a cotton picker, not a combine, plus some of his farmer clients were trying it, so he might as well learn right along with them.

“We drilled our wheat in flat instead of planting it on beds, but I don’t know if we will continue that or not,” he says. “I’ll probably stay with the strategy of planting the wheat flat because I like to have options. Next year I can still plant cotton flat on wide rows if I want to, or I can drill beans.

“We may increase our double-cropped cotton acreage next year if the price goes back up, and we can get 80 cents a pound for it,” Carter adds. “I can’t speak for others, but it depends how the double-cropped cotton turns out this year. If it makes 850 pounds per acre, we may all increase our double-cropped cotton acreage next year. But if we harvest 200 pounds per acre, none of us may try it again.”

Looking Ahead

If farmers do decide to double-crop cotton behind wheat in 2009, a successful strategy begins with this fall’s wheat crop.

Steve Harrison, LSU AgCenter wheat breeder, says if you follow wheat with cotton, then plant an early maturing wheat variety.

“Check out the Louisiana and Mississippi data and pick out varieties that have performed well and have an earlier heading date than, for example, the test average,” he says. “Generally, an earlier heading variety will be an earlier maturing variety.”

Harrison explains that wheat maturity is forced by heat, so all varieties usually mature about the same time. However, an earlier heading/earlier maturing variety may potentially mature a week to 10 days earlier.

Another consideration depends on how the wheat stubble is handled.

“If you are going to plant into the wheat stubble and not burn, a shorter variety will leave less straw than a tall variety, making it easier to get the cottonseed into the ground and get good seed-to-soil contact,” he says.

As for tips on managing wheat on rows as opposed to planting it flat, Harrison says, in general, planting wheat on beds seems to work well on heavier soils.

“In a wet year, you get a pretty good yield advantage from planting on beds,” he says. “We’ve also done some work with wheat row spacing. Last year we showed that you could plant wheat on a 15-inch row spacing and not give up any yield compared to a 7- or 7 1/2-inch row spacing.

“That obviously offers big advantages when you want to follow it with cotton on a 30-inch bed,” Harrison notes. “You can offset and plant in the middle of those 15-inch beds without going into the standing stubble and roots of the wheat plant.”

The Higher The Better

Stewart likes the concept of planting wheat on beds, and the higher the bed, the better, he says.

“Higher beds give you more options as far as what you can do with available soil moisture when you plant cotton following wheat harvest,” he says. “You can knock off the top of the bed, and planting cotton on top of the beds provides better internal drainage in the field.”

The Louisiana cotton specialist notes that one of the benefits of planting cotton behind wheat as opposed to soybeans is that cotton is a more drought-tolerant crop. Even though it is planted late, cotton doesn’t carry a lot of the risk that soybeans do.

“If you run into a dry year with late-planted soybeans, you can end up with a really poor soybean crop,” Stewart says. “In a dry year, cotton has some inherent drought tolerance. It’s not going to be perfect, but in my opinion, the kind of yields you are going to get with double-cropped cotton are going to be more consistent than they are with double-cropped soybeans.”

Contact Carroll Smith at (901) 767-4020 or csmith@onegrower.com.


Cotton/Wheat Double-Cropping Checklist

• Plant an early heading/early maturing wheat variety.
• Plant a shorter wheat variety if planting cotton into wheat stubble.
• Plant wheat on high beds to take advantage of available moisture when planting cotton following wheat harvest.
• Consider planting wheat on a 15-inch row spacing.
• Check for any plant-back restrictions on wheat inputs.


 


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