The USDA released a report recently about tillage practices in the U.S., and while there’s plenty to feel good about with no-till adoption overall, we’re really not where we should be with no-tilled cotton in the Great Plains region.

Citing tillage data from 2012 to 2016, the feds say conservation tillage is used on 70% of soybean (2012), 65% of corn (2016), 67% of wheat (2017) and 40% of cotton acres (2015). But when considering the percent of conservation tillage dedicated to no-till, the numbers change to 45% of total wheat acreage, 40% of total soybean acreage, 27% of total corn acres and only 18% of total acreage in cotton.

Farmers will try no-till or strip-till in these crops, but not many stick with it. Some 50% of corn, soybean, wheat and cotton acres were in no-till or strip-till at some point over a 4-year period, but only 20% of those stayed with the practice, the USDA says.

When analyzed by region, more than 60% of cotton acres in the South are mulch-tilled or no-tilled, while about 28% of cotton raised in the Prairie Gateway (western Texas, western Oklahoma, eastern New Mexico, eastern Colorado) receives the same treatment.

The USDA also says more than 60% of cotton acres follow a low-residue crop, such as silage, which is more than triple the amount of cotton acres following a high-residue crop such as wheat, hay, corn, sorghum or barley.

We’ve reported in Dryland No-Tiller many times that no-tilling saves soil moisture, and that increasing residue levels in fields not only saves soil but also protects young cotton seedlings from getting sand-blasted.

Part of what concerns me with the lack of no-till cotton in the southern Plains is potential loss of competitiveness with Southern cotton growers. Companies like Wrangler are starting to ask suppliers to improve sustainability measures on their farms, so what lies ahead for those clean-tilling their fields? In what shape are we leaving these fields for future generations?

Blame this problem on weather, geography, cultural aspects or whatever you like, but no-tilled cotton does work:

  • In a growing season this year that only saw 1 inch of rain until July, Kris Verett says he expects to harvest no-till cotton yields of 500-700 pounds an acre when most growers in his area of Ralls, Texas, will zero-out the crop. Not only does no-till preserve soil moisture, but seeding both cereal rye and multi-species cover-crop mixes are holding the soil and protecting young cotton seedlings.
  • In southwestern Oklahoma, Cody Goodknight is making cotton work with a more diverse rotation. Their typical rotation is wheat grown for certified seed, double-crop soybeans, then a cover-crop cocktail planted after soybean harvest. Cotton is planted the following spring and grain sorghum follows cotton the next spring, and the rotation goes back to wheat in fall behind sorghum. They also grow oats for seed to include in their cover crop program.

His farm near Chattanooga, Okla., counts on double-cropped soybeans for fixing nitrogen (N) in the soil for cotton. And Cody says adopting no-till helped him get cotton back into his rotation.

We’ll have even more information about how these two growers are making no-tilled cotton work in the February 2019 edition of Conservation Tillage Guide.