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Cover crops help keep winds from battering young cotton

The Texas Panhandle is cotton country. And, farmers there are no strangers to high winds.

The two can make for a less-than-perfect scenario when it comes to getting a cotton crop started, especially where soils are excessively sandy, like on John McDowell's farm near Shamrock, Texas. But, he's adapted a strip-till cover crop system that allows him to save those soils and generate a little extra income in the process.

"In our area of the Texas panhandle, we have very sandy soils and high winds, and we tried to figure out a way to hold our soils and protect our cotton plants when they're young," says McDowell, who was awarded the 2009 Ag Innovator of the Year award in St. Louis last summer (see more from the event). "We came up with this strip-till system where we interseed a rye crop into our standing cotton in August."

McDowell's cover crop system netted him the top honors in the 2009 Successful Farming Ag Innovator program, sponsored by Asgrow. The program honored farmers from around the country whose practical ideas -- whether large or small, relating to everything from machinery to overall farm management -- show true innovation on their farms.

Shamrock, Texas, farmer John McDowell talks about his controlled traffic lane cover crop system in his cotton rotation that earned him the Successful Farming 2009 Ag Innovator of the Year, sponsored by Asgrow.

While cover crop systems are not all that uncommon in his area, McDowell says the idea of interseeding a rye crop into his cotton fields in late summer was a relatively new idea when he began trying it out 2 years ago. Today, he uses a controlled traffic lane system to sow rye when his cotton crop is small enough to allow machinery traffic in the field without incurring damage. It's a different approach that he says helps avoid a common past problem.

"When you strip cotton as late as December or January, it's too late to sow a cover crop then," he says. "This lets us harvest our cotton and we have a nice, green cover crop under it to protect our soils."

Clover and other legumes are typically used as cover crops in a cotton system like McDowell's, but on sandy soils like his in the Texas Panhandle, researchers say nitrogen-fixing plants like these aren't always the best choice.

"Currently planting clover instead of wheat or rye as a cover crop for cotton is not recommended," says University of Missouri (MU) Division of Plant Sciences specialist Gene Stevens at the MU Delta Research Center."

And, if you're looking to both sustain better soil conditions and up your farm's conservation measures, interseeding rye, like in McDowell's system, maybe the best way to go.

"Combining black oat or rye with strip-tillage can help cotton producers achieve higher yields and economic returns on sandy soils," says Harry Schomberg, an ecologist with the USDA Agricultural Research Service in Watkinsville, Georgia. "The combination can also help producers qualify for higher levels of conservation compliance within the Natural Resources Conservation Service's Conservation Security Program."

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The Texas Panhandle is cotton country. And, farmers there are no strangers to high winds.

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