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Tillage tests — ‘trash farm for profit’

As he speaks, Merle Anders has a small prop on the table behind him: a baseball cap inscribed with “Trash Farming for Profit.” It makes sense since the rice systems agronomist with the University of Arkansas is an unabashed proponent of no-till/con-till farming.

Here at the 2010 Conservation Systems Cotton and Rice Conference in Tunica, Miss., the title of Anders’ talk is “After the Flood.” He explains that “this year just about reset everything — particularly when it comes to conservation tillage. How many of you have seen a field literally rutted up into a mess?”

In the full room, many hands raise.

“Even if you’re trying to go into, or maintain, con-till — you’re out of luck for the short-term,” says Anders, pointing to record rainfall that hit the Mid-South in 2009. “Those fields have to be worked back into shape.”

As researchers, “we have to ‘reformat’ and consider several angles,” says Anders, who is based at the Rice Research and Extension Center (RREC) outside Stuttgart, Ark. “The first regards production and how you can, perhaps, get back into less tillage/no-till or a minimum-till system.”

Second, everyone should consider what a carbon sequestration — or cap-and-trade — program could mean.

“You need to get your representatives onto your farm and make sure they understand what’s happening with rice production. It’s hard to talk about con-till and no-till when there’s so much rain, cold temperatures and the fields are such a mess.

In 2009, if a farmer had been “in a contract based on a certain type of tillage practice — sequestering carbon and being paid for it — and fields got so rutted up, what would you do? What are the choices? We need to consider that as the world is hashing these issues over. Make sure you have a seat at the table.”

For his research, Anders has frequently collaborated with Steven Brooks, a USDA plant pathologist, and Jeffrey Hignight, an economist at the RREC. “I’m interested in a variety of things. But it all ends up at profits for you.”

Anders put up a chart on how much different cropping systems cost in diesel. “This considers three tillage operations: a 32-foot disk, a 42-foot triple K and a 50X16 land-plane. Those are medium-sized pieces of equipment.”

When considering diesel prices, he says, keep in mind how many times you’ll have to go across a field to get it back into shape. Depending on the field, “very few can get by with one disk, one triple K and one plane. In the badly rutted fields you’re talking many more passes. If you have to go twice, you’re looking at nearly $100 per acre. At three passes, you’re looking at $140 to $150.”

Conversely, in a normal year, a grower may have negligible diesel costs.

Still, with input costs so high many farmers will be looking for ways to adjust. One common way is to “cut down inputs, say, ‘my banker is hesitant (to provide as much financing as he once did) so I don’t want to ask for too much. I’ll put out less fertilizer, or whatever.’”

That approach can be disastrous, warned Anders.

What if you do spread the cost over more seasons? “Sometimes that means very little — maybe you disk once less. It won’t make a huge difference, but might make some.”

Then, there’s the possibility of a rapid adoption of no-till.

“Maybe you want to go ‘cold turkey,’ meaning you’re putting the field in really good shape, do your best not to till and keep it productive. You want to spend the money, put the field together and leave it in shape for two, three, four seasons knowing that a season like 2009 can mess you up.”

If a grower goes with no-till, he’ll spend much less on labor and tillage. That means reduced costs.

“I’ve been involved in a study for nearly a decade where we’ve compared conventional tillage with no-till in seven rotations. We’ve looked at many aspects of how it can affect production, environments, profitability and other things.”

One frequent question when a farmer goes reduced- or no-till involves P and K spread atop the ground. “Many believe if you do that, much is lost versus incorporation. After six years and seven rotations, we’ve found phosphorus was higher in the no-till fields than in our conventional. We didn’t lose all the phosphorus but weren’t necessarily converting it all to yield.”

For potassium, the study “lost some in the no-till versus conventional. One reason: potassium is highly soluble. If it’s laying on the surface when a heavy rain hits, you’re likely to lose some.”

For zinc — “which we fly on with the P and K” — no-till was much higher than with conventional.

What about yields?

“The yields at the start of the six years were a bit lower for no-till. The last few years, though, they’ve been higher. The average over the six years is roughly the same between production types.”

Why did that happen?

“We were doing some work at the same time on run-off. There was ten times less erosion with no-till. Erosion is where you lose nutrients. There was also 17 times less turbidity — cloudiness of water — with no-till. And, importantly, it reduced total phosphorus concentration by 40 percent.”

Some are aware there is concern about the hypoxia situation — also known as the “dead zone” (for more, see — in the Gulf of Mexico. Regulations to alleviate that, says Anders, “are coming whether we like it or not. This could solve the problem. As soon as you reduce run-off, you’ll reduce phosphorus loss.”

What did Anders and colleagues find in 2009 studies?

“We’ve been working for three years to see any differences in diseases. We’ve focused a lot on kernel smut and false smut. If you took all the rotations, the amount of smut per 2.2 kilograms was 81 in conventional till and 25 in no-till. So, we didn’t eliminate it with no-till but did greatly reduce it.”

For false smut, “we had a 69 percent reduction in no-till over conventional. In the high fertility and low fertility for nitrogen, we had a 33 percent reduction in false smut.”

The rice/soybean rotation — “interestingly, by far the highest for false smut” — compared to continuous rice, showed an 88 percent reduction using the same planting dates, same fertilizer rates, same row-spacing. Whereas some diseases might be impacted by so much residue, false smut proved just the opposite.

As for kernel smut, “we saw no differences between tillage types. Fertility, though, was a big issue. In the high fertility test, 133 kernels were damaged versus low-fertility of 53.”

Regarding rotations, no-till rice/soybeans “was at 78 (kernels damaged). The highest was tilled rice/soybeans at 82 (kernels damaged). Tilled rice/rice was at 75 and no-till rice/rice was 49. This shows management can do a whole lot to control diseases.”


Legislation regarding carbon sequestration could hit U.S. agriculture very soon, said Anders. If so, “the rice industry could get a bad rap on that if we don’t get our ducks in line. But if you go to no-till rice, the argument shifts and it’s good for the crop. You get very high levels of carbon building up in no-till systems. Continuous rice with wheat in the winter really puts a large amount of biomass into the soil.”

If managed correctly, “rice is actually very good at sequestering carbon. If someone is willing to pay money for you to sequester carbon through rice, be the first in line.”

If you look at rice yields in the conventional till/no-till study, they’ve come down slightly in conventional and have gone consistently higher with no-till.

“For those doing a soybean/rice rotation, soybeans really like having rice straw to grow in. That has consistently raised soybean yields. There’s a tendency to want to burn rice straw. But if you have planters that can handle that material, plant into it. You don’t want to roll the rice straw — just leave it there standing — get into it in early spring and plant.”

What about profits?

The most profitable segment of the study was no-till/low-fertility. That was followed by no-till/high-fertility, conventional till/low-fertility and conventional till/high-fertility.

“Why did that happen? Primarily because during that time period we started with (rice varieties) Francis and Lagrue. We kept Francis the whole time and switched Lagrue to Cybonnet. Cybonnet was then switched to XL723. Wells has been in there the whole time, as well.

“We didn’t see a significant yield increase by increasing fertilizer. We did see more disease, though.”

For further information on the studies, a fact sheet titled “Economic Benefits of No-Till in a Rice-Soybean Rotation” can be found at


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