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60-Inch Rows: Our Hail Mary Pass At Growing Cotton

• By Darrell VandeVen •

60-iinch rowsWhen we started picking cotton in the fall of 2019, my brother, Donnie, and I finally faced the reality that the crop just wasn’t working for us anymore.

Our cost of production was too high, and the price we usually received was too low for the numbers to pencil out.

We seriously considered quitting it altogether and just growing corn, soybeans and rice. We even went as far as putting our picker on the market. As harvest progressed, we went back and forth almost daily on our plans going forward.

We enjoy growing cotton. We prefer being diversified and didn’t really like the idea of dropping a crop from our mix. We like the fact that cotton creates more commerce for local businesses associated with inputs — seed, chemicals, fertilizer, fuel, aerial applicators, etc. — needed to grow and produce it. And the infrastructure associated with cotton, such as gins and warehouses, employs more full-time and seasonal workers than grain elevators do.

Pros And Cons

But our challenges with growing cotton profitably have been gradually getting worse for the past 12 years or so. We believed we were checking all the boxes to grow a good crop. For the most part, our soil is well-drained, and we irrigate a lot. We have a couple of very good consultants — Steve Crawford and Anthony Pavloff — who help us with every facet of crop production.

We have the labor and machinery to get things done in a timely manner. Our yields are consistently on par with other successful growers in our area.

All of those factors are supposed to make cotton work, but there are problems. Northeast Louisiana has some of the worst insect pressure of any cotton-growing region in the world. Our mild winters enable pests to thrive. Even with a good integrated pest management strategy, we spend a fortune each year and still incur a lot of insect damage.

Another challenge is that all too often we’ve had an excellent crop on the stalk Aug. 1 only to see a tropical system take a big percentage of it from us. It doesn’t even have to be a hurricane; a week of rainy weather in August will do a lot of damage in the form of boll rot and hard lock. We’ve seen many 1,400-pound crops become 1,100-pound crops in a matter of a few soggy days.

A New Game Plan

We ultimately decided to try something radically different to see if we could find a way to improve the economics of growing cotton. We decided to try planting on 60-inch rows — our cotton farming equivalent of a Hail Mary pass.

spraying 60-inch rows

This sprayer was built to apply early season insecticides and plant growth regulators on a 20-inch band so only one-third of the acres actually got sprayed this year.

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 had heard some mention of 60-inch cotton for the past few years. Guys in Georgia and West Texas had been doing it, and a friend just north of here had tried it.

The Texas guys were using 60-inch rows for moisture conservation. The Georgia guys were doing it to open up the middle to allow air and light into the canopy to try to prevent boll rot.

We saw potential advantages for those reasons, but 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 we hoped to make some early season pest control applications on a band. After considering less cost for seed, fertilizer and hopefully several in-season applications on a 20- to 30-inch band, we made $120 per acre our goal in reducing costs.

If we could yield the same as we had on our conventional 38-inch rows while spending $120 less per acre, it just might help cotton remain a viable crop for us. As an added benefit, this configuration made it easy to go to 30-inch rows on corn and beans — something we had wanted to do for a while.

Hurry-Up Offense

We decided to convert everything to 60-inch beds and plant either two rows of corn or beans or one row of cotton.

It’s also a good pattern for row rice, which has proven to be a good fit on some of our heavier ground.

By the time we committed to the change, it was pretty late in the game to start converting everything. It was a mad scramble to reconfigure equipment, plow down the old beds and rework everything on the new 60-inch pattern.

We completed most of it but still planted a few fields of corn and beans on the old pattern in 2020. This fall, we have gotten those fields converted, and everything will be on the new 60-inch pattern for the 2021 crop.

Minor Changes For 2021

harvesting 60-inch rows

We modified our six-row picker to harvest four of the 60-inch rows. It did a really good job, and having more room between the rows also made it a lot easier to service the picker.

We planted mostly PHY 400 W3FE and some NG 4936 B3XF. Our overall average yield is still unknown because some of the cotton is still being ginned. However, it appears this will be our best crop since 2013, with much of it picking around 3 bales per acre.

We saved some money, but this first year we were still learning what equipment we need to rig up during the winter to further reduce expenses on insecticide and herbicide applications in 2021.

For example, our sprayer wouldn’t raise up high enough to get over the cotton once it was about 1 foot tall. We are planning some modifications so we can use it further into the season and spray a wider band as the cotton grows. We would like to make a couple of applications on a 20-inch band, then a couple more on a 30-inch band and eventually go to a full broadcast spray.

We cut our seeding and fertilizer rates considerably, but we think we can trim them a little more. We can’t say we achieved our goal of $120 per acre reduction in input costs this year. But with a few changes, we think that’s well within reach for next year’s crop.

Instead of seriously considering dropping cotton from our mix, we’re now more excited about planting it in 2021 than we’ve been in a long time.

Darrell VandeVen farms cotton, corn, soybeans and rice with his brother, Donnie, in Tensas Parish, Louisiana. Contact him at darrellvandeven@gmail.com.