Wide open spaces: Setting cotton up for success in drought

The popular song "Wide Open Spaces" by The Chicks—formerly The Dixie Chicks—may be about a young girl finding her way in the world without constraint, but an idea with similar foundation is piquing the interest of cotton growers as they strive to provide their cotton plants with the most potential for grade and yield quality, especially in times of drought stress.

Although most cotton is planted between 30 to 40 inches of row spacing, researchers have been looking into planting at wider row configurations. That strategy would allow the plant more access to moisture and nutrients in the open area between plants.

One Kansas farming operation, Blazefork Farms, owned by Brian Bretz of Moundridge, Kansas, put this theory to the test when he planted an 80-acre test plot with three different cotton plant spacings on May 5. Blazefork Farms is a partially-irrigated corn, wheat, soybean, sorghum and cotton operation with several thousand acres of ground in McPherson, Harvey and Reno counties. Scott Thiessen, an employee of Blazefork Farms and resident of nearby Buhler, Kansas, works full-time for the farm and undertakes much of the planting, combining and cotton stripping. Cotton was only added to the rotation in 2018 and Thiessen, who is heavily involved with the test plots, has been learning more about the fiber crop each year and delving into capturing more value when planting it.

“As much as anything we got into cotton because there was so much more potential of a margin than there was on $4 corn and $8 beans and although we started out with a lot of irrigated cotton, we’ve found even with lower prices, cotton is almost a better fit on dryland,” Thiessen said. “There are sometimes better yields, but for the most part it’s kind of a toss-up and not worth displacing irrigated corn and bean acres.”

Blazefork Farms planted 800 acres of cotton this year and Thiessen said the operation has also jumped into farming custom acres for neighbors who are curious but are not experienced with the management of cotton or do not have the planter plates to try it out. Since they own a cotton stripper, Blazefork Farms has become the go-to for cotton growers needing their fields stripped in the area.

Fleshing out the experiment

For the test plots, Thiessen planted 30-inch row, 30-inch skip row and 60-inch row cotton plots in a no-till field. Skip row planting is the practice of omitting the planting of one or more rows in between a planted row. In this case, Thiessen planted two 30-inch rows of cotton and skipped the third 30-inch row, so there was a 60-inch gap.

Thiessen said Phytogen 400-W3

FE cotton seed was used in the test plots and they were all planted on a per row basis at 45,000 plants per acre. Regardless of the row spacing, 2.6 plants per foot were planted. Additionally, he said 20 gallons of 28% UAN KTS blend were applied per acre.

“On the 60-inch rows, the seed and fertilizer were blocked off to every other row, but we still applied the same amount of fertilizer per acre, just concentrated on every 60 inches,” Thiessen said. “On the skip 30-inch, we did the same thing and blocked off every second row for seed.”

Thiessen said a concern with the unorthodox row spacing was weed control.

“That’s a lot of wasted sunlight and space to have the sun just hitting the dirt for 30 inches in between the 60-inch rows and the skip rows,” he explained. “I was concerned about the potential for weeds to be relentless all season. We treated all three plots the same and just kept layering the residual with a little bit of burndown.”

Although he did not know what to expect, Thiessen said through his research, there were many indications that spreading the rows apart more could allow for more resources for the plant during weather extremes.

“It can give the roots somewhere to go and tap into some reserves, whereas on the 30-inch rows, you’ve got lateral branch roots that are reaching out to the center of a 30-inch row pretty early on and pulling from that evenly the whole time,” he explained. “If you have that gap out there on the 60-inch or 30-inch skip row where they have to work to find nutrients and moisture, we can possibly add to the yield even though it looks like wasted space.”

However, he said the biggest attraction is adding to the grade, as it is often just as important as yield.

“Anytime we hit a stress, the plant goes out and taps into more reserves, but with the 30-inch rows, when it hits stress the soil may already be close to depleted,” he said. “The hope is that you finish out more of those bolls close to the end of the season and get them to be a better quality and throughout the season as things are fruiting, you have a potential of less drop in squares.”

Furthermore, this practice of spreading out the row spacing saves money when it comes to seed.

“If we can reduce seed by one-third or even half, at $100-plus per acre for top-quality, hybrid cotton seed, that swings the pendulum so we have more margin in our favor right at planting time,” Thiessen said.

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Results show promise

Although the cotton has yet to be harvested at the time of this article, Thiessen has been able to make some clear observations from the experiment.

“On the 30-inch rows, I came up with an average of six bolls that are expected to make it to harvest per plant and on the 60-inch, I came up with about 12 harvestable bolls per plant,” Thiessen explained. “Interesting, the skip 30-inch was also quite consistently producing 12 bolls per plant. Figuring a 40,000 net stand at 2.3 plants per foot of row, that would be 27.6 bolls per foot of row on the 60-inch, 27.6 bolls per foot of row on the skip-30 and 13.8 bolls per foot of row on the 30-inch.”

When bolls per foot of row totals are divided by the number of acres, it essentially means the 60-inch rows and the 30-inch rows are identical. When the skip row 30-inch is reduced by one-third, Thiessen tallied it at 18.4 bolls per foot of row on a per acre basis. Another observation he made was that the 30-inch rows produced mostly four lock bolls as opposed to the skip-30 and 60-inch rows, which produced more five lock bolls as well as more bolls per acre.

Thiessen also noted the farther the plant spacing the larger and bushier the canopy. Although the grades and yield have not been determined yet, Thiessen sees promise in this alternative spacing and is ready to add a second year to the experiment.

“We will almost certainly do another year of the trials,” he said. “We’re also going to be able to get the different row spacings ginned separately so we can compare grades. That will be the deciding factor on whether we do an 80-acre plot again next year with these row spacings or will be expand this to more acres.”

It is too early to tell but giving cotton wide open spaces could set it on the path to flourish in times of drought and put more cash back in the farmer’s pocket.

“If we can find a way to make cotton even more resilient, reduce seed by half or one-third and have a plant that ends up with more gas in the tank when we do hit that stress period, hopefully it will either maintain or increase yields,” Thiessen said.

Lacey Vilhauer can be reached at 620-227-1871 or [email protected].