Long-term benefits of conservation tillage, cover crop

Cost savings of `intangibles' add up ECONOMICS FAVOR a reduced tillage system planted into a cover crop over conventional tillage on Wayne Keeling's Ag CARES demonstration plots in Lamesa, Texas.

"The advantage is about 10 percent, just considering monetary benefits," Keeling told a Monsanto Center of Excellence Field Day crowd recently.

"That doesn't consider the improvement in organic matter content, water savings and other intangible benefits."

Keeling said farmers will not see "a tremendous amount of out-of-pocket savings from weed control as they substitute Roundup for plowing and hoeing. But the intangibles add up."

So does time savings. "Farmers don't want to shut off an irrigation system and go plow a field," Keeling said.

Ken Ferreira, Monsanto agronomic research manager, said diesel fuel costs now take a bigger chunk out of farm profits. Reduced tillage can reduce those costs, he said.

"Conservation tillage reduces trips across the field, so farmers save on fuel, labor and equipment depreciation. All those save money. It may be a subtle benefit, but it adds up."

Other aspects of conservation tillage come with subtleties, as well.

Keeling said farmers often express concerns about cover crop selection, planting time and termination date.

"It's best to plant just before cotton harvest," he said, "if the grower is not using Cyclone as a harvest aid."

The next best opportunity is as soon after harvest as possible. "I like to get the cover crop planted early enough to take advantage of any September rains," he said. `We can plant later, however, because we get most of our cover crop growth in April."

Keeling said rye provides a good cover option but doesn't stand as well as wheat. Oats are possible but are more difficult to terminate.

"Farmers may need to use 50 percent more Roundup to kill oats," he said.

"Terminate the cover crop early enough to eliminate insects and weeds," Keeling said. "Pests can move from weeds into cotton if farmers wait too long.

"Also, be conservative with water to produce a cover crop. A clay loam soil, for instance, will not need as much cover as a sandy soil. Use just enough water to get a cover, but be a little stingy with it."

Keeling said farmers might consider a light irrigation to recharge the soil after they terminate the cover crop.

"With adequate moisture, I'd err on the side of producing too much residue," he said. "Preventing sand fighting is the goal.

"Farmers may want to consider furrow dikes to help hold water on sloping land," he said.

"Moisture management is the key with conservation tillage systems," said Gary Schumaker, a Deaf Smith County cotton farmer. He's a little concerned about risking too much moisture on making a cover crop. "The cover uses a lot of water, but just leaving cotton stalks will help conserve moisture."

He leaves about eight inches of stalks standing. "That much helps with wind erosion control," he said.

Regardless of the cover, Keeling recommends farmers start with a clean field before they plant no-till cotton.

He said farmers also ask about harvest problems from stubble. "We've had no trouble stripping cotton," he said. "And leaving the stalks gives us a little more protection from blowing sand."

Keeling said farmers interested in no-till systems should investigate their soil before they start. "Check for hardpans," he said. "Also, check the amount of organic matter in the soil."

Rotation economics, he said, considering current grain prices, may not cash flow. "Grains will not compare with cotton in a rotation program," he said. "The best option seems to be a cover crop."

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