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Con-till distances producers from fuel dealers, repair shops, labor pools

Paul Freund's diesel fuel supplier had begun to feel like the long-suffering and constantly idle Maytag repairman: He just didn't hear much from the Needville, Texas, farmer anymore.

“The first year I switched to stale seedbed planting, my fuel dealer called me in April and wondered why I had not ordered any diesel. I save a lot of fuel with a stale seedbed,” Freund said.

Buck Braswell, Harlingen, Texas, allows as how conservation tillage is “the easiest farming I've ever done in my life. I need less equipment and less upkeep on the machinery I have. I don't pull a wrench anymore.”

And Derwood Cobb, Cameron, Texas, says if bad judgment results in experience, he's had 50 years worth. Conservation tillage is one of his latest endeavors and after 10 years of valuable experience admits he's “still learning how to do it right.”

All three shared what they've learned about conservation tillage recently at a Monsanto-sponsored “warm-up” session before the sixth annual Cotton and Rice Conservation Tillage Conference in Houston.

Braswell says if he can make conservation tillage work in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, it will work anywhere in the United States.

He'll make his 38th crop this year.

“I worked with no-till for the first time in 1963. I was in the 10th grade in Mississippi and helped my brother make a soybean crop. We planted soybeans behind wheat, no till with a Burch four-row planter. We got a good stand and it worked. That was the best crop he'd ever made.”

He recalls that his brother gave him far less credit than he deserved for making that crop, but he remembered the lesson when he started farming cotton and grain in South Texas in 1987.

So when a partner decided he wanted to expand a custom farming operation they were working they needed to figure out a way to expand from 5,000 acres to 20,000 acres with no more labor or equipment. No-till was the only way to do it.

“We went up to 17,000 the first year,” he said. “We made it work; it was my job to make it work.”

“We got a stand with no-till that first year; other farms nearby had trouble getting a stand. We had a little more moisture because of no-till.”

Braswell, who was named Monsanto's Conservation Champion of the Year, starts with a grain crop and rotates cotton and grain annually.

“I can get grass out of grain sorghum with atrazine, applied with Roundup just before emergence. I cultivate one time. That gives me a row for the next cotton crop.”

He doesn't shred stalks. “I spray the grain before harvest and by the time I'm ready to plant cotton, the residue has crumbled up. I can run PrepMaster and clean it up if I still have residue.”

He doesn't shred cotton stalks either. “I got rid of my stalk pullers and leave the root systems intact so the next season's plants can follow the old roots.”

He kills cotton behind the stripper, spraying 2,4-D. “I'll spray again if we get rain to make certain I get volunteer cotton. By February I can plant right through the stubble.”

Braswell said farmers should get their planters ready before they go to the field. “Keep it adjusted properly and it will go. But it has to be calibrated or it will not work right.”

He sprays with Roundup before planting to clean fields up. “I plant Roundup Ready varieties so I spray again before the five-leaf stage. Then I use a hooded sprayer.

Braswell said trepidations about reduced tillage systems have not come about. “I thought we might have cutworm problems because we left root systems in the soil. That has not happened.”

He also worried about grades. “Our cotton has graded as good as conventional. We tested it, but farmers have to test like varieties. They often compare yield and grades with varieties other than those with the herbicide and insect resistant genes.”

He said testing the transgenics against the parents gives a more accurate comparison of grade and yield.

Braswell said reduced-tillage systems have overcome much of the bias that accompanied early trials. “No one makes fun of us any longer,” he said. “Although it's sometimes hard for a young farmer to persuade his father to try conservation tillage. Landlords are beginning to see how well these systems work.”

That's especially true when they realize the savings potential, he said.

“We save bout $50 per acre with cotton versus conventional planting. The yield is as good or sometimes better. At one time we put 2000 hours a year on a tractor. Now we put 400 on two or three, sometimes even less than that. We use one tractor for 1500 acres versus one for 800 before.”

He's also using a smaller tractor, a two-wheel-drive 160 horsepower machine.

“We need the hydraulics to run 12-row equipment.”

Other savings include: 2.47 gallons of diesel fuel per acre for no-till versus 15.92 gallons per acre for conventional. He used to employ 10 men, now he's down to five sometimes and usually just three.

Braswell recommends that farmers getting started in conservational tillage should start with a good spray rig, and a bedder. “A hooded sprayer is essential. Invest in a good planter and maybe one cultivator.”

“I don't use a lot of attachments on my planter; it's just a standard John Deere unit. I use spikes instead of closing wheels on the planter.”

He uses a three-bar cultivator for grain sorghum. “I need coulters on it to cut through the trash.”

Braswell always plants at least half his acreage to no-till. “Some years I'll plant everything no-till,” he said, “but occasionally the crops need a bed and I have to make a crop.”

He says success with reduced tillage systems rests with the farmer. “It all depends on how dedicated a farmer wants to be.”

Freund grows 800 acres of cotton and 500 of corn and guar, on a farm a little more than a Sunday drive from downtown Houston. He has farmed since 1975 and started tinkering with a stale seedbed in 1993, trying to make certain he got his corn crop planted on time in heavy land.

That first experiment convinced him the practice had promise. “The following year I planted everything in a stale seedbed.”

He starts after harvest, shredding and pulling stalks. “I spread phosphorus and potassium dry, hip the beds, and loosen up the soil so the rain moves down into the ground.”

He plants on top of the bed.

“I usually make two trips, one to hip or list the bed to reshape it and spread the residual herbicides. The residual helps with weeds such as evening primrose and thistle. Between the time I reshape the bed and planting, I may use some 2,4-D or Roundup.

“Then I burn down and plant.”

When he first started with the stale seedbed, he applied nitrogen with his base fertilizer, just before or just after he planted. “I've tried pulling a tank, applying ammonia, and placing it far enough away from the seed to prevent injury.”

He uses Roundup Ready varieties and sprays Roundup over the top and cultivates once for in-season weed control.

“Cultivation keeps plants out of water and reshapes the beds,” he said. “I sidedress at the same time.”

He may use a hooded sprayer once or twice to keep weeds out of the crop.

“With just one cultivation, everything seems to run smoother,” Freund said.

He said his father was a bit skeptical of the practice at first. “Now, he's changing his mind about it.”

He also deals with “a lot of tough landlords. “I lease 23 separate farms. The smallest unit is 8.8 acres.”

Freund would like to see no-till work on his operation. “I've tried it, but it is not as successful as the stale seedbed has been.”

He said grain works well on a bed and when fields get dry in spring, he can use a disk to knock off the top of the bed to find moisture to plant cotton. “I just brush it a little.”

He prefers not to till anything after Nov. 1. “If I need to I can top off the rows just before planting.”

Meanwhile, his fuel dealer is wondering if he's been forgotten.

Cobb started out with strip-till and now does “a little with several systems.” He says he's found no one technique that fits every situation.

“Each farmer has to adapt a system to his particular operation,” Cobb said. “Every farm has different soil types. I still use some strip-till and some no-till as well.”

He has modified equipment as climate and necessity dictated. One year planting season was extremely wet.

“It rained for two months,” he recalled. “Fields were muddy and sticky. I took the anhydrous knife off and got into the field, moved trash off the rows to allow the soil to dry out enough to plant.

“I try to move trash away from the center of the row to allow the soil to warm quicker, but I maintain the residue on the ground to reduce erosion and add insulation.”

He likes to throw up a small bed to keep plants out of the water.

Cobb likes to get started early in the fall to get phosphate fertilizer in the ground. He says he puts far fewer hours on his tractors than he did with conventional tillage. “I use less time, less fuel and less labor. For 4,000 acres, I use two planters, one sprayer.

“I can cover 100 acres per hour with the sprayer. I do use a lot of herbicides.”

He's concerned about traffic and hard pans. “It's hard to control traffic patterns at harvest. I've found no good answer yet to prevent combines from running over the rows.”

“I've made a lot of mistakes in 50 years,” Cobb said. “I've tried a lot of expensive things, but I have gotten rid of my cultivator.”

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