2008 High Cotton Winners Enjoying Benefits of Farming ‘Ugly’

NASHVILLE – For years, farmers who planted no-till were said to be “farming ugly.” But nothing about no-till or reduced tillage farming is ugly with this year’s High Cotton awards winners. Each has adopted minimum tillage practices and believes those are helping them take better care of their soil and water.

January 7, 2008
Contact: Marjory Walker or T. Cotton Nelson
(901) 274-9030

NASHVILLE – For years, farmers who planted no-till were said to be “farming ugly.” But nothing about no-till or reduced tillage farming is ugly with this year’s High Cotton awards winners. Each has adopted minimum tillage practices and believes those are helping them take better care of their soil and water.

“Farmers are the original environmentalists,” says Hembree Brandon, editorial director at Farm Press Publications. “They, their families and their neighbors have the most to gain by protecting their soil, water and the environment where they live. “This year’s winners represent the best of the environmental ethic displayed by so many of our farmers.”

Farm Press sponsors the High Cotton Awards Program through a grant to The Cotton Foundation. The five winners will be honored at a breakfast on Jan. 10 at the National Cotton Council-coordinated 2008 Beltwide Cotton Conferences in Nashville. The recipients are: Mike and Timmy Haddock, Trenton, N.C., representing the Southeastern states;  “B” Lindsey, Caldwell, Ark., the Mid-South; Clint Abernathy, Altus, Okla., the Southwest; and “Sonny” Hatley, Scottsdale, Ariz., the Far West.

The Haddock brothers said they found no-till was the only way they could offset the cost of labor, equipment, pesticides, fuel and fertilizer after they began growing cotton in 1990. Although cotton has been king in many parts of the Southeast, it hadn’t been grown in the Haddocks’ part of eastern North Carolina for nearly 50 years. The brothers grew up on a tobacco farm, left farming when they became adults but decided to come back to it in the 1970s. They said the economics of switching from conventional tillage to no-till became evident after growing a few crops of cotton.

“That first year we got a half inch of rain between May 18 until the second week in August, which is much like our crop this year,” said Mike Haddock. “We made a little over 600 pounds per acre. After that first crop was ginned, we felt if we could make 600 pounds of cotton with no rain, imagine what we can do when we do get rain?”

Lindsey, this year’s Mid-South winner, says the trick to keeping cotton production profitable for his farming operation along northeast Arkansas’ Crowley’s Ridge is keeping those good soils on the farm.

Most years, Lindsey is concerned with sheet erosion from water leaving the ridge, a geologic structure rising several hundred feet above the landscape.

“If you farm close to Crowley’s Ridge, then you are going to have a continuous battle with soil erosion, not necessarily because the slope is so bad, but because you get so much water from the 3- and 4-inch rains that come in an hour or an hour-and-a-half,” he said.

Lindsey has installed dozens of drop pipes and drop inlets on the farm, including several V-shaped terraces around 21-inch drop pipes to hold water longer and facilitate flow into the drop pipes. He’s also built berms to divert water into ditches to keep it from washing through the fields.

Lindsey has been sowing wheat cover crops on land prone to erosion.

“You have to take care of your soil,” Lindsey explained. “My philosophy goes all the way back to when my father farmed this land. He always used vetch and Australian winter peas to build the land back up.”

Lindsey uses minimum till, a practice that involves a limited amount of plowing, on much of his cotton, bedding up over the existing row after cutting stalks.

“On some fields, we go full tillage,” he said. “It depends on the situation.”

Southwest winner Clint Abernathy plants about one-third of his family’s irrigated cotton no-till, using minimum tillage practices on the remainder because of the need to create and maintain water furrows for furrow irrigation. But conservation tillage works well with drip irrigation and center pivots.

“The only problem we’ve had the last few years with no-till in irrigated fields is volunteer cotton,” Abernathy noted. “We’ve had to cultivate to get rid of it. Other than that, we’ve not plowed it.”

He says 95 percent of his family’s dryland cotton is no-till, and he uses minimum till on about 5,700 acres of wheat. He plants some cotton right behind the wheat combine, using the wheat stubble to hold soil and moisture and to protect cotton seedlings from blowing sand.

Most farmers in Arizona and California till their soils conventionally because of plowdown regulations, but Far West winner Sonny Hatley has modified his production practices to try to keep peace with his “neighbors.” A 45-year veteran of Texas and Arizona agriculture, Hatley literally farms in a fish bowl surrounded by millions of urbanites and governed by state and tribal government regulations in the Phoenix area. Air quality/dust regulations are some of the most stringent in the nation in Arizona.

“If the dust starts blowing toward Highway 101 and Scottsdale, we have to shut down tractor operations. But that does not happen too often,” he said.

One reason for that is Sonny and his son and partner, Adam, cultivate far less now than they once did with all their acreage in herbicide-resistant cotton varieties. Roundup Ready technology has eliminated the need for pre-plant herbicides, resulting in not only less dust, but also production cost and trip savings.

“We used to cultivate maybe six times a season,” says Hatley. “It costs at least $10 per acre ever time we drive a tractor through the field. Now we cultivate just once and that to basically make good irrigation furrows early in the season. “We dry plant everything and irrigate every other row so we can get around with the first two herbicide applications in a timely manner.”