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Conservation-till in California corn gaining momentum

OKAY, IT'S not Iowa. The Sierra Nevada are a dead giveaway. California is not the Hawkeye State.

The 500,000 acres of corn in the Golden state is another telltale sign. That's about 11 million acres short of Iowa's total.

California may not be in the Corn Belt, but corn is an important part of the state's agricultural economy. For one thing the fast growing dairy industry needs increasingly more silage corn and about 75 percent of the acreage in the state is grown for forage.

Grain corn, however, is important. Northern California farmers are reeling from the loss of sugar beets, seed crops and processing tomatoes. The only cash crop left is grain corn.

However, grain corn is like most all other commodities in California and Iowa, as well. Prices are low, below current costs of production. Farmers want to grow it as cheaply as possible.

That is why California producers are borrowing a page from the Midwest and tinkering with the idea of conservation tillage or no- till crops. However, it's not necessarily for the same reason.

Midwesterners have practiced conservation tillage for years to reduce erosion, not a major issue in California. Weather is hardly a problem in sunny California.

The weather is so nice California farmers sometimes practice what one called “recreational tillage…if there is nothing do to and there is a tractor sitting in the yard…we go cultivate.”

With the cost of diesel and low commodity prices, California producers are giving up that recreational pursuit. If corn is the crop, one of the most logical places to cut costs is in tillage.

Monsanto is introducing the concept of con-till or no-till corn to the state and is getting a warm reception. Test plots totaled 2,000 acres last season; this year demo plots reached 10,000 acres. Next season 50,000 acres — 10 percent of the state's corn acreage — could be in some form on conservation tillage, according to Bill Cox, Monsanto seed sales manager.

Eventually, John Bradley, Monsanto conservation tillage specialist, believes half of California's corn acreage could be no-till.

Monsanto began introducing the concept of no-till in California using cotton as the primary crop, but there have been difficulties melding plowdown requirements for pink bollworm control with no-till.

“We are seeing a much more receptive audience when introducing no-till in corn,” he said.

Farm manager Dimas Garcia at Bennie Gonsalves Dairy near Laton, Calif. participated with Monsanto in a demonstration plot. About 90 of the 475 acres of silage he farms for the 1,600-cow dairy were planted to Roundup Ready® corn this season.

“When they came to talk to me about planting con-till corn, I was very reluctant,” said Garcia. “I feel like you have to cultivate to get the kind of growth we need to get the tonnage we must have.”

Silage corn is the forage staple of dairies. It keeps the cattle fed cheaply through the year.

“You don't want to run out of silage,” said Garcia. “You may have to cut back a little on your dry cow rations if you get short, but you do not want to have to buy silage because you run out.”

Garcia plants wheat and green chops it in the spring and plants silage corn, looking for at least 30 tons per acre. He's not sure he'll get that off the Roundup Ready variety he planted, but it will be close…26 to 28 tons, he estimates.

“However, I like the idea of it and want to try it again…maybe with a better variety. I also want to pre-irrigate after the wheat before planting to get a better seedbed,” he said.

He applied 250 units of NH3 pre-plant and ran 25 units of NH3 in the irrigation water.

Once the corn was planted, he did not cultivate, instead using Roundup Ultra® herbicide for weed control. That saved him about $20 per acre.

The cost savings is what is generating the interest in conservation tillage, said Monsanto's Cox.

“Demonstration plot growers are telling us this year that they saved from $30 to as much as $85 per acre in not working the ground compared to conventional tillage,” Cox said.

Cox acknowledged that yields have been less than growers wants, however. A large part of that was the fact the Roundup Ready trait was mostly in 90-day silage varieties.

“We expect to have the herbicide resistant trait in longer season hybrids next season,” said Cox, who anticipates 50,000 acres in commercial Roundup Ready corn sales next season.

There are three no-till corn scenarios for California. One is single crop, no-till grain corn planted into wheat or corn stubble; another is double-cropped corn silage; and then no-till corn planted into alfalfa.

“This no-till system would work well for grain corn growers with peat soil around Stockton in the Delta where they have trouble with weed control with existing herbicides,” he said. “Roundup® herbicide over the top and no till would work well for them.”

Barbara Kutzner, technology development manager with Monsanto in California, said it is critical to use Roundup on the crop residue before planting Roundup Ready corn, and “make sure it is dead before planting. This is especially critical in alfalfa where we have had failures because growers did not wait until the alfalfa was completely dead.”

Once the crop has emerged, weeds can be controlled with Roundup over the top of the plants up to about the 30-inch-high stage without injury.

The Roundup Ready corn also can fit into rotations with tomatoes, safflower and cotton.

While no-till offers cost savings, “it does require a bit more planning than a conventional system,” she said.

These conservation tillage systems require no-till drills or conventional planters can be retrofitted with attachments to plant into residue.

“For a dairyman, the beauty of no-till is that he can double crop corn without sacrificing quality often typical of late fall silage,” said Cox.

Monsanto is recommending that dairymen plant into the stubble of a silage field as it is being harvested.

“You can plant right behind the harvester the same day and save as many as 10 days,” said Cox “Ten days translate into 15 days in the fall and that can make a big difference in quality.”

Always read and follow label directions. Roundup brand herbicides will kill plants that do not contain the Roundup Ready gene. Roundup®, Rounup Ready® and Roundup Ultra® are registered trademarks of Monsanto Technology LLC. ©2001 Monsanto Company.

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