It's not enough to simply protect the land you're farming — you also need to make it better. That's the guiding philosophy of Billy Sanders, the 2004 Farm Press High Cotton Award winner from the Southeast Region.

“Environmental stewardship is vitally important to our farming operation,” says Sanders, who along with his son Johnny and nephew David farm 2,900 acres of cotton and 750 acres of peanuts in Dooly County, Ga., with another 4,000 acres is in pine trees.

Protecting and improving the land is a family tradition for Sanders. He is the fourth generation to farm the same south Georgia fields. His son represents the fifth generation and, hopefully, his grandson will be the sixth.

“If we don't do whatever we can to protect the land — not only protect it, but make it better — there will be nothing to leave our children and grandchildren,” he says. “Working with the Soil and Water District, I've recognized that a lot of political things come into play. But I think we should tie everything together for the benefit of both the farmer and the environment.”

Sanders is recognized as a Georgia pioneer in the use of conservation-tillage and cover crops. His entire cotton and peanut crops are strip-tilled, planted into heavy cover crop residue.

Utilize cover crops

“The main thrust of our conservation-tillage program is in utilizing and maximizing the benefits of cover crops. We've looked for innovative ways of handling heavy residue in a strip-tillage system, and we've made progress over the years,” he says.

After encountering numerous problems working in heavy cover crop residue, Sanders' son Johnny worked with KMC and equipment innovator Clifton Dixon to modify a strip-till rig. The end result, he says, should go a long way towards solving the problem.

“The machine is set up so that we can leave the residue. It'll allow us to go into the cover crop early. We can get some of the strip work completed before we kill the cover crop. We don't want to disturb the soil other than the row area,” he says.

In his peanut operation, Sanders broadcasts the cover crop before he digs or before he picks the peanuts. “We do some one way and some the other way. It worked real well for us in 2002 because we had a lot of rainfall during harvest. In a dry harvest season — such as this past year — it isn't working as well. We're getting a better stand in some fields than in others.”

Sanders is working with wheat and triticale as cover crops, and he has come to prefer triticale.

Chooses triticale

“We have stopped using rye as a cover crop,” he says. “Our real choice now is triticale. It has the root system of rye, but it doesn't have rye's rankness.

“If the germination is no good with rye, it has no value to you, except for maybe as seed. If the quality of the triticale isn't good, we can use it for livestock feed. Also, triticale can be harvested three to five days earlier than early wheat. That allows us to double-crop. Triticale also yields more than rye, with a potential of 75 bushels to 80 bushels per acre and a test weight of about 49 pounds per bushel.”

In 2002, Sanders' highest yielding cotton was planted behind triticale. “Our irrigated, full-season cotton in 2002 looked very good and appeared to have good potential, but boll rot was very damaging. The cotton was trying to open at time that didn't work for us. But with the cotton planted behind triticale, we had good weather when the cotton was opening, and we made a little more than 1,300 pounds per acre. The other cotton made from 1,000 to 1,150 pounds per acre.”

Triticale ordinarily can be harvested by May 15, says Sanders. “We harvest just enough cover crop for our seed. The remainder is burned down. We do some of our strip-till prior to burn down to allow the cover crop to mature. It also helps us to spread our workload.”

The majority of Sanders' farmland is not irrigated, by necessity. “Ideally, we'd like to have big fields that are shaped to accommodate a pivot system. But we don't, and we're not going to change the shape of our fields. We have to play the hand that was dealt to us. We have put a lot of our short rows and corners into pine trees.”

Sanders began planting strip-till peanuts in the early 1990s but stopped temporarily after 1995. A combination of dry weather and ineffective herbicides made him go back to conventional-tillage. But, armed with new herbicides and other advances, he resumed strip-tilling peanuts this past year.

Strip-till cotton

He began planting strip-till cotton in the early 1980s. “Our first objective when planting cotton is to have maturity in the cover crop. And maturity means having residue that will last. Some growers are making a terrible mistake by terminating their cover crop too early. They burn it down before it's ever booted out. They might have done themselves some good, but the residue won't stay on the ground. We have residue on the ground throughout the season.”

Sanders says the ideal maturity time for a cover crop is after the grain head begins setting pollen but before it is filled.

“If you let the grain heads fill, you tie up plant food nutrients for a period of time that will be detrimental to your cotton crop. The wildlife and doves like for us to let the cover crop mature, and we had to let some mature this past year because we couldn't get to it, but it did all right.”

Sanders usually starts planting cotton on or about April 15, when the soil temperatures begin to warm up to Extension recommendations. The strip-tillage operation is done several weeks ahead of planting in some fields and at planting in others.

“If there's a good bit of moisture in the soil, we might wait a day or a half a day before planting to give it time to dry.”

In 2002, Sanders put out Prowl with the burndown treatment and was not pleased with the results. “We put out Prowl this past year after we burned down and after we strip-tilled, and we had some problems. Prowl is getting caught up in the residue and isn't doing the job that we need it to do.

“We have been putting out fertilizer in the fall, for the cover crop and the cotton crop. But we're going to change that and fertilize at some point before the strip-till operation — either before or after burndown. It shouldn't make much difference because it can be done either way.”

Yellow herbicide

Sanders isn't sure how he'll handle the application of a yellow herbicide. It's needed in his fields, he says, for pigweed and buffalograss.

“In the past, we've impregnated fertilizer with the yellow herbicide. We're not sure if we can put the herbicide on the fertilizer, put it out on the residue and have it fall down through the residue and onto the ground. But that should work better than just spraying it on the residue.”

Roundup Ready cotton, says Sanders, has worked well with his conservation-tillage system. “I'm hoping we'll have other options real soon — options that'll be economical. Spraying over-the-top and stopping at the four-leaf stage doesn't give us all we really need. I hope we'll have other choices that'll help us with different weed problems.”

Sanders' contributions to agriculture don't stop at the edge of his fields. In addition to being a supervisor with the Ocmultee River Soil and Water District, he also is a board member of the Dooly County Farm Bureau. He has served for about 15 years on the Southeastern and Georgia Boll Weevil Eradication Foundation and has been instrumental in the success of boll weevil eradication in Georgia and throughout the Cotton Belt.

Sanders also began a popular event known as Dove Days in Dooly. This annual event, held on the opening day of dove season in Georgia, invites the participation of agricultural leadership from all levels for a day of fellowship, food and fun. Sanders Farms takes the lead in organizing the festivities and assumes responsibility for preparing fields for the shoot.

Dove Days in Dooly has an unofficial theme each year, ranging from garnering support for boll weevil eradication in Georgia to the construction of a 1,900-acre water conservation and recreational impoundment for Dooly and surrounding counties. Approximately 300 friends of agriculture participate each year in the event.

Sanders and his wife Earlene have a son and a daughter — Johnny and Jenny — and four grandchildren.

e-mail: phollis@primediabusiness.com