I recently attended the Conservation Systems Cotton and Rice Conference in Jonesboro, Arkansas. One of the most discussed cotton issues was the rising cost of inputs. It is no secret that inputs, such as fuel and fertilizer, will be at an all-time high for many farmers in the United States.
With higher costs on the horizon, Dr. Bill Roberston, University of Arkansas Research and Extension, and cotton producer Jesse Flye of Jonesboro, Arkansas, presented at the conference addressing strategies to improve cotton profitability. Robertson, with funding from Cotton Incorporated, has studied the use of cover crops to protect and improve soil health for years. But what does all that research mean for the farmer?
Cover Crops, Weeds, Insects
Arkansas cotton producer Jesse Flye started his presentation by posing a question on many farmers’ minds, “Can cover crops decrease inputs and increase soil health?” Flye surmised that cover crop farming could be beneficial in three main categories: weed suppression, insect pressure and irrigation efficiency.
A potential shortage of herbicides and crop protection products combined with growing weed resistance in row crop fields could make this season particularly challenging for weed control.
“There are several things that cover crops will do, including inhibiting germination of other plants,” Flye says. “With less germination, you’ll see less emergence of unwanted weeds.”
Planting a well-seeded cover crop before the first freeze allows the resulting biomass to outcompete weeds and the farmer to lay the groundwork for a successful spring crop. Following termination of the cover crop, residue can block sunlight and reduce germination.
Among the benefits of cover crop farming in cotton is the decreased need for insecticides, giving farmers an advantage in terms of labor costs. Over-spraying insecticides can eradicate both the helpful and harmful pests living in fields. The ecosystem created by a cover crop allows beneficial insects to survive.
Cover Crops And Water
Finally, Robertson and Flye’s presentations highlighted how planting a cover crop prevents water depletion in the soil profile, specifically in times of drought. Biodiversity created from the cover crop in the soil allows for better water infiltration, thus combatting erosion and pooling in the fields. The water penetrates the ground, generating minimal runoff and leading to more efficient field irrigation overall.
“We have data showing an increase in water infiltration by four or five times when a cover crop is used, compared to infiltration rates without cover,” Robertson says. “We also see cover crops as a way to prevent soil compaction because of the complex root systems they can develop.”
The takeaway from all this information is that each of these cover crop benefits directly correlates to reducing input costs. I’m sure producers will be cautious coming into spring planting and are considering many approaches to help protect against rising input costs.
Thanks to research funded by Cotton Incorporated and conducted by the University of Arkansas, Mid-South cotton producers have access to proven cover crop strategies that can help protect their bottom line.