Conservation tillage gaining favor among Texas, Oklahoma growers

For years the best way to convince Southwestern cotton and grain producers that you leaned to the crazy side was to argue against that annual ritual on most farms: tillage. Put away the plow. and conventional wisdom predicted lowered productivity and increased weed pressure.

The advent of herbicide-resistant crops, however, has accelerated a change in attitude among growers.

“The thing that makes no-till work is reducing compaction. Staying in a controlled traffic pattern is a key to the system. You won't see the benefits of (no-till) with tractor tracks out in the middles.”

Judging from the experiences of three Southwestern cotton and grain producers who participated in a panel discussion conservation tillage during the recent Southwest Crops Production Conference and Expo in Lubbock, the change has been for the better.

Specifically, these three growers — Danny Davis, Elk City, Okla.; James Hinton, Floydada, Texas; and Dale Swinburn, Tulia, Texas — cite better yields, better soil, and better efficiency.

Davis says conservation tillage can reduce erosion, energy costs and soil compaction and increase water retention, organic matter and yields. But it requires planning and commitment.

Davis showed portions of a videotaped interview he did with the Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension Service to review two decades of conservation tillage. He said the constant battle with wind erosion, moisture loss, “horrible” compaction and organic matter of less than one percent made him “start looking seriously at conservation tillage.”

Early efforts included strip farming and minimum tillage.

“We saw enough early on to realize what residue on the surface could do to control erosion,” Davis said. “We double-cropped the summer of 1981, with mung beans and milo behind wheat. We converted all our row crops in 1982 to no-till.

“We discovered that long-term no-till farming provides benefits other than erosion (control) and moisture retention,” he said. By 1992, “we found that organic matter on a farm that in 1982 had only three-tenths of 1 percent had improved to 2 percent.”

Field management becomes crucial, he said. “There's never a time that there's not something (in the field) growing.”

The cycle begins with a cover crop planted while the cotton is maturing, he explained. “We normally start about the middle of August, sowing rye with a shielded drill between cotton rows.” The goal is to have the cover crop up and established by the end of August.

The cover grows among the stripped cotton stalks through early spring. “In early April we consider treating it with Roundup, depending on the moisture and the growth,” he said. “We look more at the condition and size of the rye than we do at the calendar.”

Being flexible with shredding cotton stalks helps catch winter moisture. “We like to wait until after any real possibility of snow” so the stalks can trap it, he said. “But we like to have those (stalks) done by late February or March. That's when he puts out herbicide.

“I don't like to be on the field any more than I have to after we kill the rye. Every pass, no matter what you're doing, compacts the ground,” he said. “The thing that makes no-till work is reducing compaction. Staying in a controlled traffic pattern is a key to the system. You won't see the benefits of (no-till) with tractor tracks out in the middles.

“Everything we do on our farm is set up in multiples of our row spacing. We farm on six rows; we spray on 18 rows; we harvest six rows. We do everything on hard middles; that's the only place we run tractor tires.”

He admitted that's hard to do when the crop is solid-seeded, the cover crop has been terminated and the previous crop's stalks have been shredded. “It's really hard to see where your rows are,” he said.

A good cover crop is essential. “I can't stress enough the importance of getting a cover crop established,” he said. And it's important to sow the cover crop late in the season, before the cotton is ready to harvest.

“It's hard to establish your cover crop after you harvest the cotton. By then, it's a lot easier to go to the gin and drink coffee than to put in a cover crop for next year's cotton.”

“The biggest problem (with conservation tillage) is people trying it on just a little 10- or 20-acre tract. My advice is to try it on a large enough piece of acreage that it'll bite you if it doesn't work. If you get enough of it where it'll bite you, you're going to make it work.”

Conservation tillage isn't a practice anyone should rush into; it requires training and commitment, Davis said. “If you're not confident in your ability to plan and follow through” with a conservation tillage management program, “find somebody you can watch and talk to.”

James Hinton pointed to timely field operations as the key to success with conservation tillage. He said the emphasis on timeliness is required by the nature of the system.

“Timeliness is everything, especially in weed control.”

Hinton said combining a good rotation program with conservation tillage helps him maintain cotton yields and control weed problems.

He began reducing tillage operations on his farm more than 15 years ago, but only made the decision to try a complete no-till system three years ago.

Since then he has refined procedures and worked through some unexpected headaches. That move has been fairly slow as Hinton works with problems ranging from less than ideal growing conditions to slumping cotton prices.

He identified several factors that helped get more of his acres into the system. In 2001 Hinton expects to have as much 60 percent of his 1,600 acres in no-till with the rest getting at least a little prep work.

Among those unexpected headaches is volunteer herbicide-resistant cotton in no-till fields. It's an issue for which he has yet to find a suitable answer.

Hinton said running a Para-Till over the entire acreage being transitioned and then sticking with a consistent rotation program allows him to be consistent in equipment traffic patterns.

“Running the Para-Till seems to get the ground fluffed up and helps prevent compaction as long as we follow a good rotation program,” Hinton said.

Cropping options include a wheat-cotton-fallow or wheat-cotton-wheat schedule.

For Dale Swinburn, the revelation that something needed to change occurred in the mid-1990s when he first realized that his water resources were decreasing. “The status quo is powerful and it takes a crisis to spur bold action” to address problem areas, he said.

Even before current low prices and skyrocketing costs hit, Swinburn said a steadily dropping water table was the first factor to affect his overall operation.

He hasn't yet “worked all the kinks out” of his conservation tillage program, but has enough experience with the process to identify and get comfortable with both the advantages and the disadvantages of the system.

Among the advantages he cited were: reduced machinery expenses; increased protection for seedling cotton; increased water retention; more flexibility, higher yield potential and reduced costs.

Disadvantages are relatively few with the biggest being the expense in implementing the system. After that his list of potential disadvantages included narrow windows for field operations; generally rougher field conditions for remaining farming operations; and the steep educational requirements for the producer and the farm labor force.

For 2001, Swinburn said he plans to use no pre-plant yellow herbicides and he'll plant 100 percent transgenic varieties. He will list up beds and sow cover crops in the furrows.

He also recommended growers adopt a comprehensive management strategy, including soil testing to pinpoint fertilizer needs targeted at realistic yields. He will explore site-specific or zone agriculture utilizing new precision agriculture technologies.

Other changes include possibly eliminating pre-plant irrigation and watering with adequate volume to make maximum yields by not planting outside the coverage area of his center pivot sprinkler systems.

Swinburn advised growers adopting conservation tillage to get to know each and every field, it's strengths and weaknesses. “Each field has its own characteristics and its own (optimum) treatment regimen.”

“It's hard to establish your cover crop after you harvest the cotton. By then, it's a lot easier to go to the gin and drink coffee than to put in a cover crop for next year's cotton.”

He knows for sure he will not go back to his old way of farming. “Conservation tillage is the wave of the future,” Swinburn said. “The old way of farming is just not an option for me anymore.”

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