When they lost their market for sugar beets, cotton was the crop that best fit into a revised rotation for Dick Fellers and his sons, Will and Randy.
And ultra-narrow-row (UNR) cotton, so far, is yielding up to 50% more than cotton in 30" rows.
The Fellers farm is near Hereford, TX, which is often called the cattle feeding capital of the world because of its dozens of commercial feedyards. But in recent years, king cotton has had a strong showing in the region. A tight groundwater supply has made cotton a choice over corn, which requires more irrigation.
UNR has been popular the past five years, thanks mostly to Roundup Ready technology. While anything under 20" rows is considered UNR, the Fellers' rows are only 7 11/42" wide.
"We plant our UNR with a John Deere 750 grain drill," says Dick Fellers. "It's a no-till system, which means we depend a lot on Roundup Ready seed for over-the-top weed control."
Their cotton is planted under two center-pivot irrigation circles. Half is UNR and half is in 30" rows. They're comparing fields, looking at growth patterns and overall crop performance.
"In 1999, we had about 425 acres of UNR," says Fellers. "We saw yields that were 25% better on one circle and much higher on another (800 vs. 480 lbs/acre)." He notes, though, that the 30" cotton faced some weather problems that delayed harvest and likely hurt yield. "Last year, the drought caused us to cut back to about 620 total harvested acres," he adds. "But we still expect to see a large difference in yield from the UNR."
October wet weather and early season snows the first week of November caused a delay in the 2000 harvest. Nonetheless, some crop analysts told the Fellers they could see well over a two-bale yield from UNR.
Harvesting it requires a header switch on their stripper. The 30" rows are harvested using traditional brush strippers; the UNR is stripped using a finger-header.
The planting rate is higher, about 150,000 seeds/acre, to generate a thick stand. Growth regulators are usually applied a week or two earlier than with 30" rows to help ensure that plants don't grow taller than about 24" but grow fast for early boll development.
Dan Krieg, a Texas Tech University plant scientist, sees UNR as a viable cultural practice for regions where the growing season is short because of cooler summer nights and the chance for an early freeze.
He prescribes 15" narrow rows as the best alternative for growers seeking a change from conventional 30" or 40" rows. "Our studies show that you can obtain virtually the same yields from 15" rows as 10" or 7" spacings," says Krieg. "And it takes much less seed."
The goal is to establish 2 11/42-3 plants per foot of row. That amounts to about 100,000 plants/acre in 15" rows. "If you have more than three plants per foot you will often get cotton plants that don't produce bolls," says Krieg.
Narrow rows use water faster and require better water management, he says.
Fellers says his family's UNR is still in the experimental stage, and may call for a different row spacing. But in his area, UNR cotton appears to be a solid rotational crop.