Supporters say best approach for Western irrigated cotton The open-sided onion shed at Newhall Land and Farming's Firebaugh, Calif., ranch was the tent. Beneath it were evangelicals raising the (tin) roof, not with hell-fire and brimstone, but with fervent convictions that no-till or conservation tillage cotton farming will work in California and Arizona.

Monsanto's Center of Excellent field day on the West Side of the San Joaquin Valley had all the trappings of an old-fashioned summer country revival. Unfortunately, like many of those revivals, there were plenty empty pews. The crowd was less than 100.

The sparse crowd, however, did not daunt the passion of today's agricultural apostles who are challenging the status quo of Western irrigated cotton farming.

Two prominent Arizona producers, Jerry Rovey of Buckeye, Ariz., and Shannon Schulz of Harquahala Valley, both in Western Maricopa County, were the most vocal missionaries.

The younger Schulz said his family has struggled mightily and bought a "trainload of steel" trying to economically farm "conventional" cotton in 24 to 36-inch rows. The result has been a "bunch of rusted equipment." After a couple years of growing cotton in rows 10 inches apart and harvested with a finger stripper, Schulz said that equipment can continue to "sit there and rust" because he is never going back to conventional cotton.

Need good planter "The only piece of iron you really need to grow UNR cotton is a good planter that can deal with plant residue," he said. "Equipment is not a huge issue with ultra narrow row."

Rovey and Daniel Burns of San Juan Ranch Co. in Merced County, Calif., agree. Burns has been using a modified sled planter with offset, old planter units planting two rows to a bed in what is now known as the California ultra narrow row, harvested with a picker rather than a stripper as UNR is elsewhere in the Cotton Belt.

"The planter is definitely the key to ultra narrow row," said Rovey who has 250 acres of UNR. It must be able to deal with residue and successfully seed for plant populations of 100,000 plants per acre or more. Rovey and Schulz have planted cotton in both barley and oat residue.

"We are also hopeful we can solve our planting problem with a new planter next year," said Burns.

John Bradley, former University of Tennessee researcher who is now with Monsanto as its conservation tillage expert, said rather than spending money for disks and other iron, no-till or conservation tillage farming requires heavy investment in planters and attachments.

This is not popular with equipment dealers, according to Bradley, but "farmers are changing and dealers have to change as well. I think most dealers are uncertain about this new technology, but they have to realize that the same orders that they have been taking every year for cultivators can be orders for planters and the tools and attachments necessary to make them work for individual farmers."

Planters are not a cheap investment. Bradley said producers can spend as much as $300 per row unit to get one that will work well. The biggest breakthrough for no-till or con-till cotton has been the new Roundup Ready and other herbicide-resistant cotton varieties. Naturally, all the producers at Monsanto's field day utilize Roundup Ready varieties.

Weed control was a huge barrier to widespread acceptance to reduced tillage across the Cotton Belt before transgenics. That barrier is now gone, said Bradley, who cautioned however that herbicide application timing and spray effectiveness must be good to fully benefit from these transgenic cottons.

Soils `more active' Schulz said UNR cotton on his family's farm has made soils "more active" with higher organic matter. The result has been not only increased cotton yields, but in other crops as well.

"We got a 30 percent yield increase in silage corn vs. conventional tillage," he said.

His cotton fertilizer use is down 40 percent. "When you are not cultivating, you are not root pruning and the plants use fertilizer more efficiently. And, I am not convinced 40 percent less is enough because we use a lot of Pix on many fields to control the growth."

Bradley warned, however, "don't go into UNR to reduce fertilizer use. Maintain your current fertility program. The reality is you'll likely need less fertilizer, but find out first."

"Soil structures have improved tremendously" as a result of reduced cultivation and more organic matter incorporated, said Schulz.

Rovey agreed. "Where we had a cover crop ahead of cotton we were getting 12 to 14 days between irrigations. Without the cover crop we were getting only five to six days," said Rovey. "Water lasts longer and we get better growth with no till. And by not cultivating, we do not get the weed flushes you do when disturbing the soil," he said.

Bradley said UNR cotton is benefiting from "bio holes" left from the previous crop left undisturbed by tillage. "I would think conservation tillage from alfalfa to cotton (in the West) would be tremendous after four or five years of alfalfa," he said.

And, there is less compaction, said Schulz.

The premise behind UNR is to reduce cost and maintain yields, each participant agreed.

Burns has cuts his cost by $100 per acre, but he has been disappointed in UNR yields. However, he is not giving up on UNR and plans to grow about 40 acres of 30-inch cotton planted two rows to a bed on 60-inch processing tomato beds next season.

San Juan grows about 2,000 acres of tomatoes each year, and Burns hopes he can reduce his costs of rotating to cotton using transgenic varieties and high plant population cotton.

The sparse crowd belied the growing interest in conservation tillage, according to Jeff Mitchell, University of California Cooperative Extension vegetable specialist. He said there are about 18 different conservation tillage demonstration and research trials under way this season in California. In 1996 there was one.

Before acceptance can grow beyond the less than one percent level currently, Mitchell said issues involving conservation tillage and its impact on irrigation water management; dealing with crop residues in minimum tillage; in-season weed control; cover crops, and harvest efficiency must be resolved.

"I think conservation tillage has gone beyond the fascination state to the point we are running to keep up with the interest," said Mitchell.