Mark and Greg Howard are among many West Texas farmers finding that ultra-narrow-row (UNR) cotton delivers higher yields and lower input costs.

The Howards recently added cotton to their irrigated food-corn rotation at Farwell, TX. The shift to a new crop also featured a shift to 22" rows for both cotton and corn. They'll plant 15" cotton this year under low-pressure center-pivot systems.

"We decided on UNR primarily to help with water management," says Mark Howard. "It was within our overall plan to tailor our farming around the climate and the availability of water."

In last year's drought, the cotton received 13" of irrigation water, compared to 22" for corn. Using an S&H Broadcast Header mounted to a John Deere 7455 stripper, the cotton yielded about 2 1/2 bales/acre. When ginned, it graded at only 8% bark.

"That compared to the gin's average of 22%," says Howard.

The cleaner cotton came from a short-plant, short-branching variety that produced an early stand. "We used this variety because we wanted to get a canopy established quickly to help provide weed control and to set the fruit early," he says.

The Howard program ties into the UNR theory to get an earlier crop with fewer bolls per plant by seeding at higher rates in 7-30" rows. The crop also matures in 130 days instead of 140-150. The Howards seeded 90,000 seeds per acre in the 22" rows. They'll go with 105,000 seeds per acre in 15" rows.

Dan Krieg, Texas Tech University soil scientist, says more uniform plant spacing gives each plant more room for growth.

"By planting for three or four good plants per foot of row, we're growing a crop that closes its canopy quickly, shades the ground and reduces the amount of rainfall and irrigation water lost to evaporation," he says.

Krieg and Mark Brown, a Texas A&M University extension agronomist in Lubbock, have conducted UNR trials for several years.

"In our 1998 trials, conventional irrigated cotton planted in 40" rows yielded about 1,050 lbs per acre," says Brown. "Our average UNR yield was 1,200-1,500 lbs per acre."

There can be drawbacks to UNR. It's planted flat, not in beds, so the crop is more susceptible to wind erosion. Narrow-row planters or drills capable of seeding no deeper than 1 1/2" are necessary to get a good stand.

UNR performs best under center pivots. Chemigation can be used for fertilizer applications, but Brown recommends that nitrogen be applied preplant for best results.

"With narrow rows and a thick crop, low-energy precision application (LEPA) sprinklers with drops may have trouble rotating through the crop," says Brown.

Also, UNR is more management intensive.

"You have to be ready to respond when it needs water, fertilizer, herbicides or an insecticide, and you have to be waiting with the harvester when the crop is ready to come out of the field."

About 20,000 UNR acres were planted in Texas last year. Many were harvested using a broadcast header like the 20'-wide UNR "finger header" used by the Howards. Manufactured by S&H Metal Works in Lubbock, the headers are marketed through John Deere dealerships. They come in 13', 16' and 20' units. Prices range from near $17,000 to over $20,000.

"The header's angle-iron fingers are situated horizontally and spaced to handle cotton planted in any row width," says Oliver Shadden, S&H co-owner.

Height sensors give smoother coverage of the field. Electronic actuators control tilt. For easier cotton flow, Shadden's company widened the throat from 24" to 36", added air jets and improved the auger system.

"Farmers growing UNR indicate they will increase their acres," says Shadden, noting that 70 of the units are in fields across the Cotton Belt. "We're seeing farmers who grow picker varieties in the South use the header on their harvesting equipment, so it's not limited to just stripper varieties."