Winds sweeping across the Texas plains mow down almost 10% of the state's cotton annually. Damage to seedling cotton can be prevented with cover crops, without loss of moisture needed to make cotton lint, says Todd Baughman, Texas Agricultural Experiment Station Extension agronomist.

For the past five years, Baughman has experimented with wheat and rye as cover crops, including when to plant, where to plant and when to terminate the cover crops. In addition to protecting young cotton, the cover crop can reduce the labor required to hold the soil in place during the winter, and allows producers to work under no-till conditions says Baughman.

The initial three years of research found:

  • There was no difference in cotton yield found between use of rye or wheat cover, but rye was much better for wind protection.

  • Terminating at different stages resulted in no difference in lint yield, but the 50% headed cover crop provided better wind protection.

  • There was no difference due to row pattern in lint yield, but the every-row pattern performed best for wind protection.

Only about 1% of producers planted cover crops five years ago, Baughman says. About 5-10% do now and he hopes that number continues to grow.

Added cost in establishing a cover crop — more tillage and equipment — along with the concern for loss of moisture and subsequent reduced cotton yield, have kept some from adopting the practice, he says.

“In four of five years with cover crops, we have not affected lint yields,” Baughman says. “There are additional costs in establishing and terminating the cover crop, but a benefit is we have no fall or winter tillage on that land and no expenses in fighting sand.”

As producers' operations get larger, it's more difficult to find labor to plow the fields during the winter and fight sand during the spring, he says.

“In our operation, a guy could get by with a lot less labor than what he could under a traditional system.”