Reduced tillage provides promises with challenges, grower panel says

Ag Techologies Conference hears advantages, disadvantages AFTER ONE year with conservation tillage, Leonard, Texas, farmer Ronnie Lumpkins has "more questions than answers" but is convinced the technology has a place in his operation.

Bill Rasor, VanAlstyne, Texas, shares some concerns but says reduced tillage has been an asset for his beef cattle operation.

And Bob Beakley, Ennis, Texas, says conservation tillage has allowed him to maintain or increase yields on cotton, corn and wheat while reducing expenses for labor, fuel and equipment.

Lumpkins, Rasor and Beakley shared their conservation tillage experiences with other farmers during a panel discussion recently, part of the Ag Technologies Conference at Texas A&M, Commerce.

Lumpkins' main concern is planting behind wheat, especially following a wet harvest season.

"I wanted to try conservation tillage to reduce erosion on heavy Blacklands soils," Lumpkins said. "I bought an air drill, which performs exceptionally well, and Roundup Ready technology makes the system work.

"But my biggest problem has been with wheat. I can't figure out a way to make (no-till) wheat work, and it's an important part of my rotation. I can plant behind soybeans, milo or corn, but it's hard to follow a wheat crop."

Lumpkins harvested wheat in less than ideal conditions. "We ran the combine in mud," he said. "We planted the following crop in ruts and stands were uneven. I think we'll have to perform some kind of minimal tillage following a wheat crop."

Lumpkins said residue adds to planting difficulties. "We get a lot of residue from high-yielding wheat. We used chaff spreaders at harvest and it looked like we had spread a blanket over the ground. The soil does not dry under the residue and soils remain extremely cold, some 10 degrees colder than bare Blacklands soils in an adjacent field."

He said sidewall compaction in the heavy soils also caused problems. "Milo simply did not grow well. Yields dropped from 5,000 pounds per acre to 3,000.

"We had to delay planting and we simply can't afford to do that, especially in a year like 2000."

He said no-till worked well with soybean, corn and milo residue in the spring. "It has a place but we have to learn how to make it work on wheat. We've gone to 100 percent conservation tillage, so we're committed to it."

Rasor first tried conservation tillage in 1985, "primarily for coastal bermudagrass pastures, seeded with small grain. I applied phosphate with the small grain seed and cut it into the soil," he said. "The system helped the coastal pasture and small grain production.

"I got phosphate into the soil where the plants needed it and I improved the pasture."

He also tried a soybean rotation. "The third year with soybeans, we had plenty of rain all summer and made a lot of beans. The fourth and fifth years, we got no rain and the soybeans did not do well.

"I thought soybeans would provide a good alternate crop and improve my soil. That was not the case. Wheat did not do as well after soybeans and I abandoned them in 1990."

He stuck with no-till in his pastures, however. `I tried some Sudan in oat stubble in the spring and then planted oats and wheat. That worked well.

"The most success I've had with conservation tillage is through the livestock operation, but I'll continue to look at crop options as well."

Beakley says no-till wheat behind cotton is a standard practice on his Ennis farm. "I plant wheat in cotton stalks. I shred the stalks because of the Boll Weevil Eradication Program."

After stripping the cotton and shredding stalks, he waits for a rain before he plants wheat. He applies a 10-34-0 fertilizer with Amber or Finesse herbicide. "I don't incorporate the herbicide and it works well. I topdress the wheat as usual. I can apply my herbicide after wheat emerges."

Beakley says conservation tillage offers a number of advantages. "I save fuel, time and labor and reduce erosion," he said. "Old crop residue prevents water from washing away the soil. I also plant in a smoother, firmer bed."

He says wheat "seems to grow off better behind cotton. Sometimes yields are better, especially with limited rainfall. The disadvantage is with rains in the fall. I sometimes get cotton re-growth. That's more of a cosmetic problem, however. It just looks a little funny."

He works with another system on a highly erodible farm in wheat and corn. "I could add cotton or soybeans to the mix." At corn harvest, he uses a chopper and stalk spreader. He shreds stalks if necessary.

"I stay off rows as much as possible. That's hard to do but it does limit compaction." He controls weeds with Roundup after harvesting corn and plants wheat with a grain drill, at a 10-degree angle across the corn rows.

"I add a little more wheat seed than usual and apply a 10-24-0 fertilizer and herbicide after emergence. I topdress as usual."

He says a chaff spreader at wheat harvest helps with residue management.

"I prefer to harvest wheat when the soil is dry, but that's not always possible."

He uses Roundup to control winter weeds in the wheat stubble and will plant corn in the stubble in February or March.

"I apply the full rate of phosphate and half the nitrogen at planting. I use less fuel and labor and save on equipment. Savings can be significant."

Disadvantages include a need to till in a wet year. Also, savings sometimes may be offset by herbicide costs. But that will equal out over time.

He says compaction may be a problem if he has to harvest wet. "The crop also may look rough and our Blacklands soils may be less even after a few years of no-till."

All three farmers agreed that continuous no-till production increases organic matter content in the soils and that the first few years with a reduced tillage system are the most challenging.

SIGN-UP for the 2000 Crop Disaster Program is scheduled to start Jan. 18, but producers will probably have to wait until at least Jan. 25 for an appointment.

A national Farm Service Agency train-the-trainer seminar has been set for Jan. 8-11 in San Antonio. Program specialists from FSA state offices across the United States will receive comprehensive instruction on all aspects of administering the 2000 Crop Disaster Program.

They will then return to their home states to train FSA field office staff.

Texas FSA field office personnel in the High Plains area will receive their training Jan. 22-24.

It can be expected that appointments will start being set sometime in early to mid January to coincide with completion of the training period.

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