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Behind The Scenes With ‘Mr. No-Till’

john bradley my turnMy association with cotton began when I was born wearing 100% cotton cloth diapers and duck head safety pins. Cotton production has been one of my passions in life. In my early years, my father was an Extension agent in West Tennessee, and I tagged along to a lot of cotton farm visits. When I was home, I “farmed” with my red Farmall peddle tractor in the big sand box.

My favorite place to go was my maternal grandparent’s diversified farm in Hardin County, Tennessee. They raised cotton, and I, like many kids in the ’50s, picked cotton with a large flour sack. This is when I knew I would somehow be involved with agriculture for life. My family moved to the farm in 1959 to produce cotton, corn, hay, hogs and cattle, plus raise five children.

We grew cotton every year during a time when herbicides, such as Treflan, Ansar X and Karmex, were being introduced. I was so proud we were replacing our hoes with chemical weed control. My father also sold D&PL cottonseed all over West Tennessee. Chemical and seed sales were mostly direct to the numerous cotton gins in every community and crossroads.

I traveled with him at least one week in the summer to visit his dealers and learn about much larger cotton operations. This began my lifelong networking in the industry. Our last year of growing cotton was around 1973 when we sprayed 13 times for boll weevil.

Fast forward through my military and college years, and I’m in Lake County, Tennessee, as an Extension agent working with conventional-till and no-till cotton. Lake County is a small Delta county in the upper most northwestern corner of the state. Several farmers and I were trying to demonstrate double-crop cotton following wheat, inter-seeding cotton and cotton planted into cotton stubble.

This was when Tom McCutchen, director of the University of Tennessee Milan Experiment Station, was beginning no-till cotton research. Mr. McCutchen died in 1983, and I had the opportunity to follow in his footsteps. Again, my passion for cotton arose, and I worked with a team of researchers to develop systems for growing cotton without tillage. Many of the UT researchers believed that no-till was the answer to West Tennessee soil erosion problems.

Cotton fields in this area were the most erosive in the country, losing an average of more than 14 tons of soil per acre per year. Some fields were losing more than 80 tons per year. Due to the introduction of no-till cotton practices and systems, soil erosion is now less than 3 tons per acre per year. Tennessee leads the nation in percentage of cotton acres no-tilled annually — 75-plus percent.

Every July for the past 37 years, my adrenaline still gets flowing remembering how hard we used to work getting ready for the annual Milan No-Till Day. At its peak, this national and internationally known one-day premiere no-till event was attended by more than 12,000 farmers from many states and foreign countries.

No-till cotton was always a major focus and interest. This year, the Milan No-Till Field Day will be virtual, https://milannotill.tennessee.edu/.

In 1997, I had the opportunity to work with Monsanto as their conservation-tillage specialist to introduce no-till and conservation-tillage cotton across the entire Cotton Belt. Much of this was accomplished by setting up Centers of Excellence.

I have also been privileged to work with cotton production in several foreign countries. No-till cotton is a hard sell! Cotton producers are very conservative and reluctant to embrace tillage change. I’ve been met with a lot of crossed arms and shaking heads but was never discouraged. I believe in its benefits.

Cotton has always been my favorite crop because it responds to careful management and often rewards with high yields. I have been blessed to have agriculture careers that have allowed me to be closely associated with the cotton industry and work with its wonderful people. I thank God every day for my life in agriculture.

— John Bradley
Lutts, Tennessee
johnbradley@springvalley.farm

Editor’s note: John and Debra Bradley currently own and operate Spring Valley Farms, an 1,100-acre beef cattle farm in Hardin and Wayne counties, Tennessee. They market beef at www.springvalley.farm to restaurants and schools and sell direct to customers.