Some call it conservation tillage, or con-till. Others call it strip-till or row-till. Whatever they call it, it serves several key functions.
But the main one is to protect cotton seedlings from the wind and "sandblasting." That's a big problem in West Texas and some other areas with sandy soil.
Blowing sand can desiccate the tender cotton seedlings. In severe conditions, it can even drift over the top and smother the plants. It's not unusual for these growers to make 6-10 trips across the field to furrow dock, or reform the furrows needed to hold irrigation water.
A second plus for con-till, with its much reduced time spent making field trips, is that it enables growers to get the crop off to an early start. Early cotton produces the highest yields, usually has fewer problems with insects and brings the best market price.
Brad Palmer, Plains, TX, has been experimenting with conservation tillage for several years.
"My first year row-tilling was a good one," Palmer recalls. "I was lucky. Each year has brought a different set of challenges. I'm fairly comfortable with it now, but I learn something new every year."
Palmer has dumped primary tillage altogether. He doesn't even run rippers through the row middles.
"I saw no advantage to it. I did buy a Paratill, because I thought I saw some hard pan in my continuous cotton acres.
"Other than Paratilling, there's no heavy tillage," the Texan asserts. "I run a cultivator when I fertilize, but that's it. With this system, we don't have to do any sand fighting. For me, it's peace of mind."
Palmer also has made some other changes. He grows cotton in rotation with melons, potatoes and spinach. When a field is going into cotton, he plants rye in late November and terminates it right ahead of the planter.
"I put a herbicide down broadcast in March or early April and run a rolling cultivator over it to scratch it in just before I terminate the rye," Palmer explains.
Buster Adair, of Brownfield, TX, is another con-till innovator. He has been pioneering the use of corn as a cover crop. If it were a matter of choice, he'd drill wheat into cotton stubble, terminate it by May 1 and have his cotton planted by May 10.
"The main reason for using corn," Adair explains, "is you're running late in the season and can't establish a small grain. You can use corn and terminate it. It will still give you some protection against wind erosion."
What also works, he says, is to plant corn in mid-March and terminate it in mid-May. Adair buys outdated seed corn packed in bulk from the Midwest. It's less expensive than wheat.
While the corn proved excellent cover for his early cotton, weather threw him a curve. His aerial applicator applied Roundup herbicide to terminate it, but it rained too soon. The kill across the field was poor. While others might have gone into a tailspin, Adair came back with a hooded sprayer.
"It wasn't that weedy in the row," he notes. "We were using Prowl and Caporal in a 20" band at planting, and I can take a hooded sprayer and clean up anything in the middles.
"It's the same thing with wheat," he adds. "It just seems to work better if you don't plant a cover crop in the row - just leave the row center blank with whatever you are planting."
Adair echoes the sentiments of growers in other areas: "If you can't get your cotton off to a good start, the winds can hurt your yield. This technique eliminates sand fighting."