West Texas Growers Adopt No-Till Coupled With Cover Crops To Reduce Erosion And Protect Young Cotton Plants
• By Vicky Boyd,
Managing Editor •
West Texas cotton producers Kris Verett and Ian McIntosh have adopted conservation tillage coupled with cover crops over the past few years for different reasons, but soil health has not led that list.
“We needed to look at something different in 2010 when it was so dry and we and everybody was struggling with the crop,” says Verett, who farms with his father and uncle near Ralls, Texas. They transitioned to no-till that year and in 2013 began adopting cover crops.
“We were trying to insulate ourselves and make ourselves more resilient,” Verett says. “How much can we lessen water erosion and wind erosion and increase water infiltration? Essentially, if we can keep this ground covered, we’ll reduce water runoff and shade it, and we’ll be doing good.”
McIntosh, who farms with his father near Floydada, says they began using no-till into wheat stubble in the early 2000s to address labor needs.
“It became real obvious,” McIntosh says. “We didn’t have a lot of help. It was just me and Dad and a hired hand. We were just trying to minimize the trips in the field.
“If we were to have to plow all of this, we would have to have three more tractors and three more hired hands and be burning diesel.”
What the two producers do share is their disdain for the sandfighter — or rotary hoe — after a rainstorm, and minimum tillage combined with cover crops help avoid the equipment.
“I can tell you there’s been a lot of times when I’m just piddling around the barn when I see rotary hoes running around here,” McIntosh says. “I can’t put a dollar on that, but I love it.”
Challenges To Adoption
Calvin Trostle, an Extension specialist and professor in the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences at Texas A&M AgriLife Research in Lubbock, has worked with conservation tillage and cover crops for more than two decades. And he says Verett’s and McIntosh’s motivations are in line with those of other West Texas growers with whom he’s met.
Even if growers don’t want to dive into cover crops, Trostle says, they can obtain partial benefits by reducing tillage and keeping more plant residue on the soil surface.
“When you do tillage operations, you may be setting your land up for more erosion from wind,” Trostle says.
Probably the most common cover in West Texas is terminated wheat or rye into which the subsequent cotton crop is drilled, he says.
Katie Lewis, an associate professor of soil chemistry and fertility with joint appointments at Texas Tech and Texas A&M AgriLife Research, says cover crop adoption in Texas lags that of many other states.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service estimated that cover crops were planted on only 8% of Texas cropped acres in 2018. Conservation tillage — whether no-till, strip till or targeted tillage — was practiced on 37% of cropped acres.
Particularly in West Texas, the 17-19 inches of average annual precipitation can be a deterrent to using covers, she says.
“Where it’s dryland farming, I’d be nervous doing a cover crop,” Lewis says. “On irrigated ground, I still think there’s the perception of moisture limitations.”
Trostle agrees and says cover crop’s water requirements are a major concern when he’s conducted grower meetings. Cover crops typically need 2 to 4 inches of moisture over the winter to ensure they produce enough plant growth and biomass to provide soil protection.
But that’s just part of the equation.
Citing research conducted in Akron, Colorado, Trostle says cover crops didn’t negatively affect water use within a cropping system.
“The net water use is going to be same,” he says. “If the cover crop requires 4 inches, then you can make that back up with capture of rainfall.”
Although many growers say soil health is not a driver behind their cultural conservation practices, Lewis says they frequently talk about factors — such as seeing more earthworms in the soil — that indicate soil health improvements.
For more information on cover crops, download Trostle’s guide — “Fall Cover Cropping for Texas—Is it for you? How many species should I plant and what should I pay?” — from Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service at https://bit.ly/3r1jnuy
Kris Verett | Ralls, Texas
Kris Verett, who farms with his father and uncle near Ralls, Texas, credits a field day hosted by R.N. Hopper of Petersburg, Texas, for planting the cover crop seed.
“I immediately thought, this is what we need to be looking at,” he says.
The family had moved to no-till in 2010 and began implementing cover crops in 2013. Their system begins immediately after cotton harvest with planting a winter cover of cereal rye, haygrazer (sorghum-sudangrass hybrids), millet or other grass species. Verett uses a Case I-H planter equipped with Yetter finger-style row cleaners and depth band along with spiked vertical closing disks.
During most years, cover crops help capture heavy rainfall, slowing runoff and allowing it to percolate into the soil, he says Without the vegetation, rainfall frequently runs off their fields, taking soil with it. In the long run, Verett says, cover crops yield a net benefit as far as soil moisture.
Normally, Verett terminates the cover crop in late winter or early spring before it goes to seed to reduce volunteers. But with rye seed prices double what they have been, Verett let some fields go to seed for harvest this spring.
Come August or September, he returns to plant a warm-season cover blend that may include up to 10 species of grasses, such as spelt or triticale, radishes and legumes.
On his irrigated ground, Verett may apply 0.25 inch to spur cover crop germination. With his dryland ground, he relies entirely on rainfall.
He also has begun partnering with a cattle operator who shares a similar land stewarding philosophy to implement mob grazing on some fields. During the intensive rotational grazing, cattle eat a portion of the cover while still leaving a significant amount of plant biomass. Their manure also helps return nutrients to the soil.
As a result, the practice provides a revenue stream during the period when fields are in cover crops.
Continuing to evolve
As with anything living, though, Verett says their cover crop program is still evolving.
“We’re constantly learning,” he says. “As a system, this thing is changing. I don’t ever see getting to a static position on this stuff.”
That said, Verett can’t envision returning to a program without covers because of the positive impact they have made on their bottom line.
“We’re reducing hours on equipment and fuel use by 70%. It’s just phenomenal,” he says.
Before, they would make two to three passes just for tillage, not counting the additional passes with the sandfighter.
Now they pull the drill to plant a cover crop using a much lighter tractor and possibly make one pass with a spray rig. And rarely does the sandfighter enter a field.
Ian McIntosh | Floydada, Texas
Ian McIntosh, who farms with his father near Floydada, has about two-thirds dryland and one-third irrigated ground. Since the early 2000s, they have no-till planted their cotton into harvested wheat stubble.
“We’re so dry around here that dryland farming with growing a cover crop is usually a miss because you can’t count on the rain,” he says. “Under the pivots, it’s cotton behind cotton, and winter wheat is the only thing that will grow and give us cover.”
McIntosh has been working with consultant Jeff Miller to look at different mixes suited to the dry West Texas plains. One that McIntosh liked was a summer grazer blend that grew 6 feet tall and included flowering cowpea, sun hemp, sudangrass, millet, okra and radish.
Based on the planting rate and species mix, cover crops can be pricey. But Environmental Quality Incentive Program funds may be available to help offset part of the cost, depending on county priorities.
Cover crop cost target
McIntosh says he tries to shoot for $13 to $15 per acre. In one of his worst fields, he realized he had spent about double that after he finished planting.
His targeted budget is in line with recommendations from Calvin Trostle, an Extension specialist and professor in the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences at Texas A&M AgriLife Research in Lubbock. Trostle says he believes cover crop seed costs should not exceed $1 per acre for each inch of average rainfall — plus irrigation, if used. This limits their cost in drier parts of West Texas to no more than $16 to $18 per acre.
When the efficacy of glyphosate began to fade, McIntosh began looking to intentionally grow cover crops to compete against weeds.
“With the summer grazer, I planted it in late July, and it was the last I sprayed preplant because it had so much cover,” he says. “The weeds just didn’t have the sunlight until it got warmer.”
McIntosh uses his normal planter with trash wheels on the front to help move plant residue away and allow for better seed-to-soil contact. He also has changed out his V closure chain for two disks and a press wheel.
As part of his weed-control program, McIntosh relies on Enlist herbicides and PhytoGen varieties with the Enlist trait.
On McIntosh’s dryland ground, PhytoGen PHY 300 W3FE is a mainstay. Under his pivots, the West Texas stripper variety, PhytoGen PHY 394 W3FE, has worked well.
“When I stick that seed in the ground, I want to know it’s sprouting and coming up,” he says.