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No-till know-how with Dr. John Bradley

Commit to Conservation Tillage Before You Harvest This Fall Given the cost-price squeeze of current farm economics, many farmers across the South are seriously considering a transition to some form of conservation tillage in 2001. And, it's a good bet that those farmers already benefiting from a reduction in tillage trips will continue doing so next year.

But conservation tillage is not something you jump into without some careful, calculated thought and planning. Weaning yourself from the plow is a big step that shouldn't be taken lightly. You've got to have a plan. You need to have a mentor. You need to have an open mind and the right attitude. If you cover all of these bases, the transition will be much easier than you expect.

After all, farmers have plowed the soil for centuries. It's a tradition-a habit that's hard to break. But given new equipment and crop technology, plowing on a large, repetitive scale just isn't necessary anymore. And, thanks to the current farm economy, its high production costs and low commodity prices, plowing is certainly no longer desirable, either.

Right now, before harvest gets into full swing, is the right time to do the planning that will be necessary to ensure success with conservation tillage in 2001. You need to take a hard look at your farm and determine what fields might be best suited to give con-till a try.

A field that doesn't yield well under conventional tillage is not a good candidate for reducing or eliminating tillage. Instead, target some of your best-producing fields. Look at field history, weed spectrum, yield potential, soil type, compaction, and drainage. Don't pick a field with historically heavy weed pressure, or one that drains poorly.

As you put your plan together, you need to look out over the upcoming season and make some decisions. How will you manage crop residue, and what can you do while harvesting this fall to facilitate that management? What combine, picker, or stripper attachments will you need to use during harvest to ensure that residue cover is adequate, evenly distributed and in the best possible shape once you put a planter or drill into it next spring?

You'll also need a field-by-field analysis of weed spectrum and pressure. Which weeds or grasses give you the most problems? What herbicide programs can you use to keep these problems manageable? Is a cover crop feasible and desirable on your farm? If so, should it be wheat, rye, barley, or some type of annual grass? What seeding rates should you use, and what's the best method for terminating that cover crop in the spring? And, what is the best timing for planting and terminating a cover crop?

Another important consideration: what can you do in the fall following harvest that will lighten your load in the spring and give you extra time for the tighter management that conservation tillage demands? Applications of P and K fertilizer can be made in the fall. And, if you have to do any tillage at all, it's probably best to do it in the fall following harvest, then allow the ground to sit over the winter and soak up moisture.

What about your planter or drill? Is it equipped to handle planting through a good residue cover? Will you need a new unit, or can you retrofit your existing equipment at minimal cost?

You also need to give serious thought to what you'll plant in the spring of 2001, and where you'll plant it. If you use a conservation tillage system, or plan to adopt one, you'll want to consider Roundup Ready(r) cotton or soybeans. These biotech crops are well suited for con-till systems, allowing effective and economical weed control, and less reliance on residual herbicides and tillage. These crops work very well with conservation tillage systems, both agronomically and economically.

I also strongly recommend that you find a "mentor" to help guide you through the transition. Look around you - chances are you have neighbors that have already decreased their reliance on the plow. Lean on your experienced, local county Extension agent, Monsanto representative, crop consultant, or retailer. University agricultural specialists are also usually well versed in conservation tillage, and you should lean on these people as well.

The purpose of a mentor is to help you keep your cool and your commitment. Just like a smoker who's trying to shake the habit, there'll be times when you'll get nervous and want to run for the plow. A mentor can help you maintain your resolve by providing support, direction and technical advice. He or she can raise your comfort level and keep it up there.

Above all, keep an open mind and understanding about what you're trying to do. Literally thousands of farmers across the nation have successfully converted to reduced- and no-till production systems. They've done so without sacrificing yield. They've done it in areas of the country where they were told it would never work. You can do it, too.

In the coming weeks and months, I will use this column to help guide you through the transition to conservation tillage. We'll look at every aspect of production, what you'll need and won't need, and what you can expect. On behalf of Monsanto Company, I look forward to working with you.

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