No-till saves water, labor

A declining water table convinced Roy Carlson and his three sons, Jeffrey, Michael and Brent, to turn to a no-till production system to make the most of every drop of water available on their Hereford, Texas, corn operation.

They’ve discovered that no-till increases organic matter, fertility level, water holding capacity and yield. Labor and energy requirements go down.

They’ve been in no-till production for six years and are not likely to switch back. Brent says researchers say plowing one time takes the no-till advantage back to zero.

“I highly recommend no-till,” Roy says.

“Our main goal is to become more sustainable, with minimal inputs,” Michael adds. “The longer we stay with no-till, the less fertilizer we need. That’s down the road a ways, but we’re getting closer.”

“The water table took us to no-till,” Roy says. “We used to have wells that pumped 500 to 600 gallons a minute. Now they’re down to 100 to 200 gallons and some as low as 60 to 70 gallons, so we have to do everything we can to use water as efficiently as possible.”

In addition to no-till practices they also use low energy precision application (LEPA) irrigation systems.

They rotate much of their corn land with either wheat or black-eyed peas and are trying cover crops for the first time this year. “We only have three circles of continuous corn,” Brent says. “No-till works best with rotation,” Michael adds. “It keeps yields up.”

They don’t use additional seed treatments with corn rotated behind wheat or peas. “We don’t add anything to what comes on the seed,” Roy says. On continuous corn they treat seed with Poncho 1250 or Gaucho for insect control.

Corn borers, corn earworms and spider mites are their main insect pests. “We don’t fight corn earworms much,” Roy says.

They plant only food grade corn, white and yellow, so they don’t use genetically engineered hybrids.

They prefer to plant corn behind peas or wheat. “We’re not planting as much wheat this year,” Brent says. Black-eyed peas offer a better profit option, most years. “But the market is volatile,” Roy says. “We always contract before we plant.”

“We just about have to get an acreage contract,” says Michael. “It’s a pretty high risk crop. If it rains at the wrong time, when peas are drying down, we can lose the crop.”

“But it’s low input,” Brent says.

They’re trying cover crops for the first time this year, common vetch to add nitrogen to the soil and tillage radishes for residue. “Radish roots go deep,” Michael says. “It’s amazing how the roots will push through hard ground,” says Roy.

“Those roots help break up compaction,” Brent adds. “We will not know how much this combination helps until we harvest the corn.”

But Roy figures potential of a “20 to 30 bushel per acre yield kick.”

Brent says he learned a lot about no-till production at a no-till conference in Salinas, Kansas, last year and recommends that any farmer interested in switching to no-till attend the conference.

The Carlsons appreciate the value of organic matter in the soil. “We add compost to the land,” Roy says, “a minimum of three tons per acre. With compost we add organic matter and improve water-holding capacity.”

“It’s also good for microbes,” says Michael. Microbes feed on the organic matter from crop residue and compost.

They believe the organic matter they get from that compost and residue from previous crops increases yield. Better water holding capacity is a factor. “Water penetrates into the soil,” Michael says. “That residue is the key.”

“We also get a little hail protection from the residue,” Roy says.

They make only two trips across no-till fields before planting, to burn down winter weeds.

“Weed pressure is minimal since we don’t plow,” Brent says. “Things like pigweed germinate the first two years in a no-till system. After that, we have no viable weed seed left in the planting zone. We get some annual weeds, like mares tail, that are hard to kill.”

They use Roundup and 2, 4-D as a burndown treatment, apply Balance and Bicep behind the planter and then water it in.

In addition to the organic matter they get from the compost they also pick up some nutritional benefit, about 30 to 40 units of nitrogen per acre. “But it’s probably not always that much,” Roy says. “Samples vary and we do analyze it.”

Brent says they applied 5 tons per acre last year.

They improve equipment efficiency with no-till and need fewer tractors, and even though the four have a combination of separate operations and partnerships, they share equipment and labor.

“Swapping equipment makes it a lot easier to get into farming,” Brent says.

“And we just need a lot less,” adds Michael, who farms in a partnership with Jeffrey. “It’s critical to have first class planters and sprayers.”

They also improve efficiency with GPS technology.

“Swath control pays off,” says Michael. “We can put the recommended amount of chemical in the tank for 120 acres and when we’re done we will have no more than 5 gallons left.”

“It’s extremely accurate,” Brent says.

“We started out with a light bar in 2003,” he says. They went with a full blown auto-steer about 4 years ago. They say the combination of no-till and GPS technology reduced labor, equipment needs and stress.

They were preparing equipment for planting in early April. “We usually start planting corn about the 17th or 18th of April,” Roy says. “We wait for the soil to warm and it takes a little longer in no-till.”

With six years’ experience they are convinced that no-till will remain crucial to their operations. “A lot of other farmers in the area have also switched to no-till,” Roy says.

And they can’t argue with success. Roy won first place in the 2009 National Corn Growers Association corn yield contest for no-till, irrigated production. Winning yield was 314.87 bushels per acre with Pioneer 33Y74 hybrid.

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