Is there a better way to produce dryland cotton on the Texas Rolling Plains? Researchers at The Texas A&M University System Agricultural Research and Extension Center are trying new approaches to tillage and cropping systems that may help producers make better use of available rainfall and stabilize dryland cotton yields.

The greatest single yield-limiting factor for dryland cotton is soil moisture, says John Sij, Texas Agricultural Experiment Station agronomist based at Vernon. “We are studying ways to bank as much rainfall as we can in the soil, and to stabilize or possibly increase dryland cotton yields and returns.”

Rolling Plains farmers typically plant cotton year after year using conventional tillage. This leaves the “clean-tilled” soil bare, which can reduce soil moisture and heighten the risk of soil erosion caused by high winds or intense rainfall events.

Research has shown that using cover crops in conjunction with reduced tillage and a fallow period between crops can boost small grain and oilseed yields in semi-arid climates such as Western Kansas and Eastern Colorado. “We are curious to see if we can incorporate a cover crop with reduced tillage and a fallow period and get good results with dryland cotton,” Sij says.

Most conventional dryland cotton on the Rolling Plains produces 250-350 lbs. of lint/acre in a normal rainfall year. The researchers' first cotton crop in this study yielded 300-350 lbs. of lint/acre. Their subsequent no-till wheat crop fared just as well.

“A normal yield for continuous dryland wheat in this area is 30-plus bu./acre, somewhere in the mid-30 bu. range,” Sij says. “Our yield goal for wheat was 30-40 bu. It actually produced 41 bu./acre.”