Corn grower credits cotton for conserving water on his farms

It was the year 2000 and after years of irrigating his corn fields, Tom Lahey of Moscow, Kansas, saw the writing on the wall—he needed to find a crop to work into his rotation that would complement his corn, sorghum and wheat, but conserve water.

Lahey happened to pick up an issue of High Plains Journal and saw an article about cotton being grown in the Winfield, Kansas, area and has grown cotton ever since. It has turned out to be his secret weapon for saving water in a location that cannot spare a drop.

Lahey, a fourth-generation farmer, expects an annual rainfall of about 17 inches a year in his region of southwest Kansas, so irrigation is crucial for successful corn crops.

“If we could put that 17 inches in a spigot and use it when we needed it, we could raise awful good crops, but it doesn’t come that way,” he said.

Unfortunately, with the widespread drought in 2022, Lahey only received 9 inches total last year and most of that fell in the spring or early summer, making him even more conscious of the depleting levels of the Ogallala Aquifer and the need for all farmers to conserve water when possible. He also noted the 9-inch total was somewhat deceptive compared to what the crops could actually use.

“They count the ten-hundredths and twenty-hundredths and those don’t amount to anything, but that went toward that total,” he explained.

Lahey’s operation is 50% irrigation and 50% dryland. He said he usually yields between 1,200 to 1,600 pounds per acre for irrigated cotton and expects about 700 pounds for dryland cotton, but he had over 1,000-pound cotton in some dryland fields. For irrigated corn, he expects at least 200 bushels per acre.

Water sharing

One of the reasons cotton is a perfect accompaniment to corn is because it requires water at different time than corn. Because of this, Lahey is able to water his corn early in the summer, when it needs the most moisture. Since cotton is more adaptable to dry conditions, it can sustain itself until the early needs of the corn are met and he can gradually switch his pivots to give the cotton a little drink if needed.

“In one of our best water sharing situations, we had 240-bushel corn and 1,280-pound cotton with a 600-gallon well,” Lahey said. “We watered the corn all season long and watered the cotton twice during the growing season. We probably wouldn’t have to water the cotton if we’d gotten some moisture at the right time. With cotton, if you have a good pre-water and you water it twice in the summer, then you’ve got a real successful crop.”

Lahey said he has another situation with a half-mile sprinkler where he plants half the field to cotton and half to corn and then rotates those two crops back and forth to obtain all the benefits of the rotation. He said prior to incorporating cotton, he used to raise all irrigated corn and wheat, but the wheat did not respond well to the amount of water it was receiving.

“We needed a lot of water to raise 75- to 80-bushel wheat,” he explained. “It took much more than we use on cotton and the cotton will yield twice the gross or more than the wheat crop did. But of course, the wheat was $4 a bushel then and the market has changed a lot.”

Lahey said his operation started irrigating in 1975 and over time some of his irrigation wells have lost half of the capacity they had when they were drilled in the late 1970s and 1980s.

“They went from 1,000 gallons down to 500,” he explained. “I have several that are below 200 or 250 gallons. But without incorporating the cotton crops, I don’t think we would be irrigating those acres at all. I have five or six wells that are surveyed every January and two or three of them have stopped declining. In the past they declined every year, but not this year. So, in that area you could continue to water the way you were and hopefully it wouldn’t decline anymore. If we would slow down the aquifer would probably stabilize. I’m old enough it doesn’t make that much difference to me, but 10 to 20 years down the road things will change big time. I think that we’re getting close to zero depletion, but it’s going to take the people with the bigger wells making changes.”

The ultimate sidekick

Cotton could be considered the Robin to corn’s Batman; not only does it require far less moisture, cotton is mutually beneficially to other crops in multiple ways. Joel Heppell, Lahey’s agronomist, said both corn and cotton complement each other with their opposite types of root systems. Corn is a monocot with fibrous roots and cotton has a tap root that can grow deep into the ground, breaking up compacted soil.

“Corn’s fibrous roots spread out more in the upper part of the soil profile and are good at mellowing the surface,” Heppell said. “It also provides a way to increase organic matter for the following cotton crop.”

Furthermore, insect resistance management in continuous corn can become expensive and frustrating when dealing with corn rootworm, but Heppell said rotating corn with cotton can be a worthwhile tactic.

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“We are seeing more and more resistance to rootworm seed traits so we are also needing to combine expensive insecticide applications in crops,” Heppell said. “Rotating with a non-host crop like cotton allows us to grow non-rootworm traited corn and not have to do an additional spray. This saves costs and increases yield.”

Heppell said continuous corn can also be vulnerable to diseases like gray leaf spot.

“By rotating with cotton, the cycle is broken,” he explained. Subsequently cotton can become affected by verticillium wilt when grown without rotation. Rotating with corn provides the chance to reduce the amount and buildup of the pathogen in the soil.”

Additionally, Heppell said cotton is incredibly efficient when utilizing leftover inputs applied to soil.

“Corn will generally leave nitrogen behind in the profile,” he said. “The deep tap root of cotton allows for it to forage for the nitrogen that corn would miss and reduce the amount of fertilizer applied. Cotton is also good at foraging for moisture that is remaining in the profile following an irrigated corn crop. This past year the cotton planted into corn fields still performed quite well as it was able to forage for that leftover moisture.”

Understand Kansas-grown cotton

When Lahey first started planting cotton 23 years ago, there were significant challenges. Since cotton was not very common in Kansas at the time, he had to transport the harvested bales for hours to get them to a gin.

“It took 25% of the value of the crop just to haul to the cotton gins,” he said. “But the newer round modules have made it easier and more cost effective to haul cotton long distances.”

Finding harvesters was also a problem early on, so Lahey bought his own strippers and he and his neighbors even joined together to build their own gin called Northwest Cotton Growers Co-op, in order to solve these issues. Additionally, Lahey said Kansas can be a little bit short of heat units when it comes to producing cotton. This means if a crop gets hailed out mid-summer, the heat units will not be adequate to replant at that stage and successfully harvest a cotton crop.

“But the varieties that they’ve developed since I’ve been raising cotton make it where we can raise as good of quality cotton and as high of yield as any place,” he said.

To conserve moisture, prevent wind erosion and cover the soil, Lahey said he plans to go to no-till on his dryland farms and continue utilizing strip till on his irrigated ground.

“The cotton stubble is really stiff and even though it doesn’t look like there’s much out there, it keeps the wind off the surface,” he said.

Additionally, he has discovered cows crave cotton stubble in the winter. When he turns cows out on corn and cotton stubble they spend half their time in the cotton versus the corn. Although Lahey ventured into the cotton industry as a corn grower looking for a solution to a water problem, he has evolved into a corn and cotton farmer revitalizing his soils and retaining water for future generations.

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