Conservation-tillage: The right thing to do

Conservation-tillage, a term used to describe various minimum-tillage operations, makes use of effective technologies for reducing soil erosion while maintaining or increasing productivity, improving soil conditions, and realizing economic benefits.

Conservation-tillage practices are vital in the state of Alabama which is striving to improve efficiency and achieve profitability in farming systems.

Through the years, many barriers had to be addressed to move producers from traditional farming to conservation-tillage. Lack of experience was, perhaps, one of the most significant challenges to implementing sustainable practices. Lack of experience, however, is no longer an issue. There are now many Alabama producers who have implemented conservation-tillage methods, and they are eager to share their experiences with others.

Lack of confidence in yields is often a primary concern in adoption of conservation-tillage. In a profession with a very narrow profit margin, farmers understandably worry whether these results are applicable to their local soil type and climate.

Randy Raper, agricultural engineer, USDA-Agricultural Research Service, National Soil Dynamics Laboratory in Auburn, Ala., knows a lot about this barrier. The National Soil Dynamics Laboratory got involved with conservation-tillage in the early 1990s, at the request of USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).

In order to participate in some of the 1985 farm bill programs, farmers were required to leave a good deal of residue on the ground. A lot of farmers went this way, and farmers in north Alabama particularly were seeing their yields decrease dramatically. The conventional wisdom at the time was that if you just waited two, three, or five years, the yields would bounce back if you adopted no-till.

The north Alabama farmers weren’t finding that to be the case. They were adopting no-till and their yields were dropping, in some cases as much as a third. Or, their yields were stagnant. In either case, their yields were not bouncing back.

At the request of NRCS, the Soil Dynamics Laboratory conducted several experiments at the Belle Mina Experiment Station looking at cover crops, strip-tillage and bedding practices. According to Raper, “We started seeing successes in terms of better crop yields, better rainfall infiltration, and improved moisture holding capacity.”

This research in the early 1990s made an impact on the adoption of conservation-tillage in the Tennessee Valley region of the state. “We found that adoption in that part of the state escalated dramatically,” says Raper. “Today, 80 percent of the producers in the Tennessee Valley region of Alabama use conservation-tillage. It is a big cotton production area of the state.

“The one thing that made a big difference is the adoption of a cover crop. A cover crop improves soil quality. Soil tilth is improved whenever a plant establishes roots and grows into compacted areas. A cover crop really eliminated any compaction problems that farmers in the northern part of the state were experiencing.”

After planting cover crops, yields for north Alabama producers were not only bouncing back, but the yields were also increasing.

Raper credits new seed products with the success of conservation-tillage. “A lot of the research on conservation-tillage happened at the same time as the emergence of Roundup Ready technology. That had a big impact on the success of conservation-tillage. Farmers could put something in the field that didn’t require cultivation. They could control their weeds through a couple of sprayings,” he says.

Brian Glenn, a grain crop farmer in Lawrence County, Ala., has good advice for producers who have doubts. Glenn and his brother started experimenting with conservation-tillage back in the mid-1980s. Today, they are 100 percent no-till.

“The key to making conservation-tillage work is going into it with the idea that it is going to work, and then adapting your operation to make things work,” says Glenn. “It’s like a lot of other things — if you approach it with the attitude you are going to fail, then you probably will.”

Glenn doesn’t talk about “problems” when he talks about residue and no-till. He talks about adjustments. “The word ‘problem’ is just not one that we like to use,” he says. “We have made adjustments to deal with various issues. As with any changing practice, there have to be shifts in weed pressure and management practices.”

Management of nematodes in conservation-tillage is critical. Ben Moore, agronomist with NRCS, says, “What we are doing to combat problems with nematodes is promoting a good crop rotation. The aim of rotation is threefold: To balance nutrient demands, foil insect and disease attacks, and deter weeds. To control nematodes, we have to vary the chemistry, and a good crop rotation provides that needed change.”

Conservation-tillage systems offer numerous benefits that intensive or conventional-tillage simply can’t match.

“One of the key things that conservation-tillage does — it allows us to capture rain and store that water in the soil instead of letting it run off the field,” says Raper.

He adds that short-term drought is the most problematic issue that farmers face in Alabama. “We have those two and three week droughts that seem to hit at the wrong time. Proper moisture determines how successful the crop will be. In a normal year, conservation-tillage gives an added 10 to 14 days of adequate moisture for root development. That usually provides enough time to get through those short-term droughts,” he says.

Another benefit is increased yield, says Raper. Research conducted at the E. V. Smith Research Center shows benefits in the first year. On a 20-acre field, side-by-side plots were planted. Part was managed for conservation-tillage and part for conventional-tillage. “We saw immediate benefits in going to conservation-tillage,” says Raper. “An important finding was that we saw the benefits in every landscape position on the field. Sometimes we think conservation-tillage might be more appropriate for the top slope or the eroded areas of the field. What we found in this experiment was that we got better yields in conservation-tillage in every landscape position and starting at year one.”

Glen Walters, a Covington County producer who raises about 250 acres of peanuts and 600 acres of cotton can attest to increased yields. “We have been using strip-tillage for about 15 years,” says Walters. “The first year we tried conservation-tillage with peanuts, we did about half conservation-tillage and half conventional-tillage. The peanuts planted in conservation-tillage did better than the ones grown with conventional-tillage. Now, all our peanuts are strip-tilled into wheat. They come out of the ground easier because the soil condition is better.”

Lawrence County producer Brian Glenn says, “We are sold on conservation-tillage. We feel like it has been successful for us.” A good example of why the Glenn’s feel as confident as they do about conservation-tillage relates to droughts that Alabama has experienced in recent years.

“A power line was installed across one of our fields, and the equipment left ruts,” says Glenn. “We did the minimal amount of disturbance, but we ran a chisel and a field cultivator across that area of the field to smooth out the ground. This land was planted to corn. We have yield monitors on our combine. Where we did that tillage work, the average yield was about 30 bushels less per acre than the rest of the field. I would say the main difference was disturbing the soil and losing that much moisture.”

Billy Lee in Lawrence County began farming in 1968 on a 300-acre farm that his father had operated. “We were farming, as everyone did in those years, with conventional equipment — breaking the ground and turning the soil over in early fall, when the soil would have time to mellow over the winter months,” he says.

“Of course, it was left exposed to the elements during the winter months. With the heavy winter rains, the soil eroded, and in many cases, washed off our farm and into the rivers and creeks,” says Lee. “As a result, the potential productivity of the land over the next 35 years went down. From 1968 until about 1990, our farm grew from about 300 acres to about 1,800 acres. It was a hard way of farming, but it was the only thing we knew.”

Lee continues, “I had been concerned for a long-time that I was left the steward of the land, and it was losing yield capacity. Each year, I felt the productivity of the land was less than it was the year before. Basically, by 1990, I was not enjoying farming.

“Since implementation of conservation-tillage, I have peace of mind knowing that I’m farming in a way that enables the farm to sustain itself. The land will be even better in the years to come. I never thought we would be able to farm in such a way. Conservation-tillage is just the right thing to do,” says Lee.

For the benefit of the land, conservation-tillage is the right thing to do. It is also a conservation practice that is good for the producer. “Conservation-tillage allows the farmer to substitute managerial expertise for the amount of time spent in the field. Conservation-tillage does require a higher level of management. You have to farm smarter,” says Raper.

“There will always be a risk in farming,” says Lee. “Moisture is the determining factor in a good crop yield. Land that is managed with conservation-tillage retains more moisture so I would say that conservation-tillage takes a lot of the risk out of farming. Expenses have not been reduced greatly. It doesn’t take as much labor or diesel to farm no-till, but we have other costs, such as the expense of a cover crop, chemicals and herbicides. What I have experienced is that I can easily farm more acres with conservation-tillage than I could with conventional-tillage. But, mainly it is just peace of mind, knowing that what we are doing is good for the land.”

Ben Moore, agronomist with NRCS says, “The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), a conservation program administered by NRCS, is designed to provide incentives to encourage producers to try conservation practices. The EQIP program provides cost-share assistance for producers who will implement a minimum of 50-percent residue. The cost-share rate is higher for those who leave 75 percent or more residue on the land.”

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