Low prices mean cotton farmers must squeeze inputs to a minimum. For many, that means squeezing rows down to almost nothing.

Ultra-narrow-row (UNR) cotton lets them reduce herbicide costs with Roundup Ready varieties, sometimes without sacrificing yield. With rows just 7 1/2-10" apart, cotton plants canopy quickly as well, shading out much weed competition.

Some farmers, like Boyd Eifling of Eifling Farms, Glen Allen, MS, have already switched over entirely to UNR.

"The reason we went to UNR is strictly economics," Eifling says. "Growers are having a hard time making the bottom line. This is a tool for keeping us in business."

Allan Baucom is an early UNR innovator now planting more than 3,300 acres of it at Monroe, NC.

"My cost is about the same as it was on 30" cotton," Baucom says. "The enhancement for me is greater yield. My yield increase is across the board. It's enough that we'll be 100% UNR in 1999."

Good as that sounds, UNR has plenty of detractors. Many mills refused to buy UNR cotton last season. Some ginners dislike it as well.

The problem, simply put, is trash. Stripper harvesters used on UNR cotton tend to put more stalks, leaves and bark with the cotton than spindle pickers. The quality of the cotton itself also may not be as good as most customers have come to expect, with shorter staple length a common problem.

Cotton buyer Stuart Frazier III, Montgomery, AL, was unable to find a market for eastern and Memphis UNR cotton last year. Better harvesting technology could turn that around, he says.

"If you produce proper staple length and fiber characteristics, you could harvest with a backhoe and nobody would care. It's the final product that matters," Frazier explains.

Stripper-harvested UNR cotton reduces efficiency at spindle-harvester gins by about 40%, says USDA gin researcher Stanley Anthony, Stoneville, MS. That means ginners should charge more to gin it.

"The wear and tear on a gin, the machinery repair, all the costs are going to be more. If you put more sticks in a pipe, it's going to wear out sooner," Anthony says. "Farmers should be willing to pay more to gin their UNR cotton. The farmer and ginner must reach an agreement on ginning charges. Some farmers are irate at the idea of paying more.

"For UNR to work, it's going to take an industry approach," Anthony continues. "This year a lot of farmers are letting mills know they're interested in producing a quality product. Putting it in a module is not the end of UNR cotton for farmers. On-going research will establish the value of UNR cotton to the mill."

Stripper harvesters cost less than half as much as spindle pickers, a good situation for farmers, Anthony notes. "But a stripper in typical conditions can't harvest as many hours a day either; therefore, more strippers are needed."