Sustainable Cotton Production
The U.S. cotton industry is seeking continual improvement in sustainable cotton production, striving to more efficiently use our natural resources—water, land, carbon, and energy. With consumers’ rising interest in the environmental impact of brands and products, increasing the sustainability of cotton ultimately offers benefits at every step of cotton’s journey from “dirt to shirt.” The sustainable journey for cotton incorporates a variety of approaches and practices, including regenerative agriculture practices.
A holistic approach, regenerative agriculture supports resilience and builds and nourishes our ecosystem. Field to Market: The Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture, of which Cotton Incorporated is a member, defines it as “a systems-based perspective that sequesters carbon in the soil and intentionally improves soil health, biodiversity, water quality, and air quality while ensuring the viability of farm production.”
Field to Market goes on to outline five key principles of a regenerative agriculture system. These principles are “based in Indigenous ways of land management and are adaptive to local physical conditions and culture.” They include:
- Minimizing soil disturbance
- Maintaining living roots in soil
- Continuously covering bare soil
- Maximizing diversity with an emphasis on crops, soil microbes, and pollinators
- Integrating livestock where it is feasible
It’s important to note that there are many ways to support these principles; there is no single, prescriptive set of practices to achieve the goals of regenerative agriculture. It’s an approach that can include different combinations of responsible growing practices tailored by crop, growing region, and other factors. This is important as what may be regenerative in one region of the U.S. may not work in another region. These regenerative practices need to be place-based and must fit in the context of the regional production systems.
Cotton producers are incorporating a number of regenerative agriculture practices, which support U.S. cotton’s 10-year sustainability goals of increasing soil carbon and land-use efficiency while decreasing water and energy use, greenhouse gas emissions, and soil loss per acre. Read on for a high-level look at some of the regenerative agriculture principles and practices at work in U.S. cotton fields today.
Optimizing Soil Health
The first three principles of regenerative agriculture are focused on soil health: minimizing soil disturbance, maintaining living roots in the soil, and continuously covering bare soil. Conservation tillage and planting cover crops are two practices that help growers address these principles, creating benefits both for their operations and the environment.
Historically, tillage has been used to level the soil, incorporate fertilizer and suppress weeds. However, new research suggests that tillage can be detrimental to soil health by disrupting its structure, leading to increased surface water runoff and soil erosion. Alternative approaches are becoming more widely adopted. With “conservation” tillage or “no-till” practices, growers plow only when absolutely necessary. These practices can prevent soil erosion and reduce soil aeration; they also support the accumulation of beneficial organic matter, which can increase soil aggregation, water-holding capacity, nutrient cycling, and biological activity. Additionally, this organic matter captures CO2 from the environment and stores it in the ground, ultimately reducing the climate impacts of cotton production.
Cover crops support the use of no-till and other conservation tillage practices by protecting and improving soil health when the cash crop is not growing. In most growing regions, the cotton plant takes six months or less to mature. In conventional production systems, this leaves the soil in cotton fields bare for a significant part of the year. Planting winter cover crops such as wheat, rye, and clover ensures that the soil is covered and has living roots throughout the year. This helps to increase soil structure and organic matter, reduce erosion, and enhance soil microbial activity. Cover crops also improve land productivity as well as water quality and use efficiency.
While these practices are not new, they are increasingly being recognized as a strategic pairing to improve productivity, sustainability, and profitability. R.N. Hopper, a third-generation cotton farmer from Texas, has seen the benefits. “We grow cotton, corn, and wheat and have utilized no-till production practices since 2006,” said Hopper during a 2021 panel discussion on soil health. “We rotate [crops] to bring a lot of diversity in our systems, and we utilize cover crops. For us, conservation has been its own reward, and it’s led to reduced input costs and higher yields. It’s allowed us to continually do more with less.”
Maximizing Diversity with Emphasis on Crops, Soil Microbes, & Pollinators
A diverse mix of rotational crops also supports soil health and a healthier overall cropping system. Planting only one type of crop can exhaust soil resources, requiring additional inputs such as fertilizers to maintain plant productivity. Introducing a greater diversity of rotational crops reduces stress on the system and can increase nutrient and water use efficiency. By bringing a variety of root types and residue to the soil, it can help beneficial microbial systems thrive as well. Plant diversity also offers a natural way to control weeds and pests, including pathogenic microorganisms.
Cover crops are one form of plant diversity, and Nathan Reed, a third-generation cotton grower, cites their benefits for his operation in weed management and water use efficiency. “The cereal rye that we grow actually has an allelopathic effect on weeds, so it produces a toxin—it makes its own herbicide, essentially,” said Reed. “Between the shade on the ground and the root structure of the cover crop, our water irrigation efficiency is dramatically increased, and we’re using a lot less water.”
U.S. cotton growers are also introducing plant diversity to support mutually beneficial conservation efforts, such as improving pollinator and bobwhite quail habitats. The northern bobwhite quail population has fallen 85% in North America since 1966, mostly due to habitat degradation. Growers like Nick McMichen, a fifth-generation cotton farmer in Georgia, have partnered with Quail Forever and Cotton Incorporated to plant quail and pollinator habitats as field borders on acres identified as unproductive. This saves the cost of labor and other resources to maintain those acres while creating benefits for soil health, neighboring crops, and the farm’s overall balance sheet.
“They’re not big acres, but it’s a win-win for everybody when we do that,” McMichen said. “The environment, the farm, the farmer…everybody wins.”
Cotton’s Sustainable Future
Regenerative agricultural practices—including those highlighted here and others—help growers improve productivity while making progress against vital environmental goals. At scale, these improvements can make a global impact, not just maintaining where we are today, but improving the health of our planet. Cotton’s sustainable future can be part of the solution, and the U.S. cotton industry will continue to advocate for continuous improvements at the farm, in manufacturing and with the consumer.