Grower Interest And Potential Benefits Are Driving Factors
⋅ BY CARROLL SMITH ⋅
The agricultural landscape in Louisiana is diverse. Its farmers produce everything from cotton, soybeans, corn, rice and sugarcane to crawfish, peanuts and other commodities.
In areas of the state that predominately raise cotton, a typical rotation includes soybeans and corn. Although farmers like to keep cotton in the mix, sometimes it’s difficult to do when the price drops and input costs increase. One potential solution is to grow cotton on 60-inch rows instead of Louisiana’s popular 38-inch row configuration.
The grower-driven research involving 36- to 72-inch row spacing is ongoing throughout the Cotton Belt with mixed reviews. At the recent Louisiana Agricultural Technology & Management Conference, LSU AgCenter cotton specialist Matt Foster shared his evaluation of 60-inch row spacing in Louisiana cotton.
He said the potential benefits include:
⇒ Lower input costs.
⇒ Increased drought tolerance.
⇒ Lower occurrence of boll rot.
⇒ Improved harvest efficiency.
⇒ Standardization of equipment with grain crop rotation.
University Research Efforts
“The main reason we are looking at it in Louisiana is that growers are interested in equipment standardization with a grain crop rotation,” Foster said. “They want to grow 30-inch soybeans and 30-inch corn.
“I conducted one trial on silt loam soil and noticed that when I applied anything above 60 units of nitrogen, the plants got huge. I also noticed that you have to start spraying the 60-inch rows earlier and more often with plant growth regulators. Once the plants get to a certain size, it’s hard to control them with a PGR.
“The yield trial was done at the Northeast Research Station at St. Joe, Louisiana, on irrigated Sharkey clay soil using five varieties. It was planted a little late, but we kept the seeding rate constant at three seed per foot of row. However, the 38-inch rows were 41,200 seed/A and the 60s were 26,100 seed/A. We kept all inputs the same as far as fertility, pest management and PGRs.”
Foster said he did not see a significant yield difference in row spacing by variety, but he did see a difference among the varieties themselves. With the 60-inch rows, they are trying to see comparable yields, not a huge increase in yields. “It’s promising not to realize a difference,” he said. “This tells you that yield-wise you are not going to see a major drag in going to a 60-inch row.”
The main point is to cut costs where you can to keep cotton profitable. For example, he observed a seed cost savings based on plant population. The savings on the 60-inch rows was $43.12/A.
Foster wrapped up his presentation by pointing out that in addition to looking at benefits, you also must keep in mind the following potential drawbacks:
⇒ More prone to lodging, especially with a hurricane.
⇒ Delayed maturity.
⇒ Potential for weed escapes if plants don’t lap the middles late in the season.
⇒ Defoliation could be an issue due to lateness.
Because of increasing farmer interest in the 60-inch row configuration, Foster has more research on tap for the future. Some of the topics he wants to explore include variety performance and production practices, plant mapping in both row spacings and overall economic benefits of 60-inch rows compared to the 38-inch row system.
A Farmer’s Perspective
Darrell VandeVen farms cotton, corn, soybeans and rice with his brother, Donnie, in Tensas Parish, Louisiana. About 70% of their operation is irrigated. After a disappointing year with cotton in 2019, they decided to try something radically different going forward to improve the economics and keep cotton in their rotation.
“We decided to try planting on 60-inch rows — our cotton farming equivalent of a Hail Mary pass,” Darrell said. “We saw an opportunity in a 60-inch-row pattern to address our two biggest hurdles in growing cotton profitably — high cost of production and damage from wet weather in the fall. We also felt we could do some things in the 60-inch system to save a significant amount of money. We could reduce seed and fertilizer and hopefully some early season insecticide applications on a 20-inch band.”
If they could yield the same as they had on their conventional 38-inch rows while spending less money per acre, it might help cotton remain a viable crop for them. Another benefit the brothers were hoping for was that the 60-inch system in cotton would make it easy to go to 30-inch rows on corn and beans. Before the 2020 season rolled around, they converted their rows to 60 inches and have successfully grown cotton, corn and soybeans in this system for the past three years.
To harvest the 60-inch row cotton, the VandeVens modified their six-row picker and said it did a good job. An added benefit was having more room between the rows to service the picker.
‘Expense Side Of The Ledger’
“There are still things we need to tweak and still trying to learn what works best, but I believe we are more or less there,” Darrell said. “I am convinced it is a good, viable system that will do well, especially in the Lower Delta. When we went into this, we were looking more at the expense side of the ledger. We wanted to make the same cotton but spend less money on it. We have certainly done that. Yield-wise, I am comfortable saying we are not giving up anything, and there may be some situations where we can realize gains.”
The Louisiana farmer said one of their big savings is on seed. They plant 20,000 seed/A compared to most farmers planting about 35,000 seed/A. They have reduced their fertilizer a little bit, and some of the early season insect sprays are going out on a 20-inch band, so they are only spraying one-third of the field.
“We are saving about $60/A on seed, maybe $20/A on fertilizer and about $10/A on each of the two or three banded insect sprays,” Darrell said. “That adds up to $100 to $110 an acre in savings. If you can make the same yield, that money is all to the good.
“I believe it’s a system that ties together the best of everything — 30-inch rows on the grain and 60-inch row cotton,” he added. “You’re benefiting somewhere either in yield or expenses, depending on which crop you are talking about — cotton, corn or soybeans. Most of the farmers around here grow those three crops, and some of my friends got sold on the 60-inch row spacing and are in the process of converting everything.
“To rework all the ground and put it up in rows on a new pattern is a lot to bite off. But I think that over time, we will see more and more interest in it.”