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Less tillage holds water, helps soil

Kleberg County, Texas, farmer Glen Quackenbush sleeps better since he switched to no-till farming.

He no longer wakes up in the middle of a summer night in a cold sweat worrying about getting all his tillage done or wondering whether a heavy rain or high wind might wash or blow out his grain sorghum or cotton crop.

“Low spots in the fields don't have standing water any longer either,” Quackenbush says. “The soil soaks up the moisture before it settles in the low spots.”

David Schubert farms nearby and says reduced tillage plays an important role in his moisture management plan.

“I had a 30-acre field that got 18 inches of rain in 30 days last fall. Usually, I'd see water standing three-feet deep on the low end for a week in that field, but since converting to reduced tillage, water stands no more than a day or two. It soaks into the soil.”

“I've been on a reduced-tillage program for four years now,” says Kingsville farmer Ernest Bippert. “I'm seeing equal or better production compared to conventional systems. This year (2004) was a good year to cut back on tillage because of high diesel prices.”

“All three farmers,” says Robert Schmidt, Kingsville District Conservationist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, “believe over time they will improve soil quality. We expect an increase in soil organic matter which lends itself to better infiltration rates and greater water holding and storage capacity.”

Schmidt says new technology, such as genetically enhanced crops and cost-effective herbicides, “have made the transition easier.”

Not easy sell

It's not been an easy sell. “We have a lot of marginal land in the area,” he says. “Farmers work a lot of sandy soils so they face serious wind erosion problems. Cotton farmers also produce little organic matter to improve the soil.”

He says some land has been farmed continuously for 40 or 50 years, which contributes to a decline in soil quality.

Schmidt says farmers express a number of reservations about converting to reduced tillage systems. “Some just don't want to change,” he says. “Change is hard to do. In some cases, it has been reported that landlords will not lease to farmers who intend to use reduced tillage systems. “Some growers say minimum tillage will not work in their soils and others say changing equipment will be too expensive.”

Equipment needs, however, are relatively minor, Schmidt says. “They need a Max-Emerge planter to cut through the residue, and most already have those.”

Many also opt for a hooded sprayer to help with post-emergence weed control.

He says funds through the Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) provide cost share money for farmers to switch to reduced tillage systems.

“With changes in that program two years ago, Kleberg County growers have been able to utilize cost-share incentives to implement conservation tillage practices,” he says.

Quackenbush says reduced tillage, in addition to saving soil and water, allows him and his son Trey to farm more acres. “We farm a lot of land together and reduced tillage allows us to do that because of time savings. Also, we have some marginal land with shallow soil that wouldn't make a stand with conventional tillage.”

He says two years in conservation tillage “has really helped that acreage. I am amazed at how much this land has improved.”

Gets weeds early

Quackenbush uses a pre-harvest application of Roundup and then sprays at planting to keep fields clean. “I like to get weeds before they begin to sap moisture,” he says. “I don't use a yellow herbicide.”

He uses Roundup Ready cotton varieties and sprays Roundup over the top once and then with a hooded sprayer in season.

Schmidt says farmers who stay with the program for several years have few weed problems.

“When we plow up new land we see more weed problems,” Quackenbush says.

He doesn't look back. “When we bought our strip-till unit we sold our cultivator,” he says. “I don't need it. I'm happy with reduced tillage.”

He says farmers interested in converting should consider three new tools: Roundup Ready varieties, a hooded sprayer and Bollgard technology. He says the system works just as well with grain as it does in cotton. “Improved soil has boosted grain sorghum yields.”

Little fall cultivation

Schubert cultivates a little in the fall “to shape the beds. Folks may call it trashy land but the bottom line for me is moisture. If we conserve moisture it's a good system. Every time I don't cultivate, I save water.”

Few farmers in the area irrigate, so we depend on rainfall to make our crops. Schubert says the combination of reduced tillage and a sound rotation system — grain sorghum, cotton and wheat — help hold water in the fields.

He admits to a bit of early reluctance to Roundup Ready cotton. “I thought it was expensive but I see now it's pretty cheap weed control.”

He says fewer trips across the fields reduce liability. “And we save wear and tear on tractors and use less fuel and labor.”

Hooded sprayer

He agrees that a hooded sprayer is an essential part of the weed control system.

And Bollgard has become an important part of insect control. “By mid-season this year he had not sprayed his Bt cotton at all. “I had to spray conventional cotton two or three times,” he says.

Bippert rotates cotton and grain sorghum and says conserving moisture early in the season pays dividends at harvest.

“I use furrow dikes and my grain never stressed for water this year,” he says. South Texas was blessed with ample planting moisture for grain and cotton.

Bippert re-shapes beds each fall. “I do no deep tillage after that,” he says.

He's done some ripping with a V-ripper but is thinking about cutting back on that practice.

“I still do some but a lot less than I used to.”

He uses gramoxone as a directed spray in grain sorghum to clean up grass under the rows. “I don't cultivate,” he says.

He agrees that grain sorghum benefits from reduced tillage as much as cotton but he also encourages farmers to watch the system for a few years.

“It takes a few crops to detect improvements,” he says.

“Each farmer's situation is different,” Schmidt says. “They are continuing to fine-tune and refine operations to fit particular soils, landscapes and (management) styles.”

Quackenbush says the biggest challenge with reduced tillage systems has been changing his attitude.

“The hardest thing I've found about reduced tillage is to do nothing,” he says.

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