As soon as harvest ends: Conservation tillage begins in fall

Conservation tillage begins just as soon as the harvest is over, says Monsanto's conservation specialist for the South.

John Bradley, widely known for his knowledge in conservation-tillage, has been practicing and demonstrating the practice for some 20 years.

“It starts at harvest,” Bradley told a group of 150 farmers and industry professionals at a Center of Excellence field day in Cameron, S.C.

“With corn, you can leave the stalks in the field — they'll be gone by spring,” Bradley says. “With cotton, I'd recommend flail mowing or chopping them up.”

While many farmers who use either strip-till or no-till plant a cover crop, Bradley says it's not absolutely necessary. “Cover crops are another layer of management” that require getting used to.”

He does point out that cover crops increase organic matter one tenth of one percent each season. A cover crop will answer a large percentage of the Environmental Protection Agency regulations regarding runoff, he points out.

If you're going to plant a cover crop, do it before the first of December, Bradley says.

When he began using the practice in 1982, Bradley thought that insects and diseases would be the two biggest barriers to overcome. “Those have been the least problems.”

“Harvest and take a no-till drill to the field and plant the cover crop as soon as possible. If you wait until late December, the cover crop won't have time to get enough growth on it before spring.”

Getting ready to convert to the practice is probably the most important aspect of actually doing strip-till or no-till, Bradley says.

This involves getting the equipment ready, making decisions about how and when to fertilize, and even making the decision about going cold turkey or easing into the change.

Bradley recommends going out in February or March — before the actual planting begins — and setting the rig when you're fertilizing wheat in the spring.

When it comes time to plant, avoid wet soils.

“A positive attitude is probably the single most important thing in this practice,” Bradley says. “If you think it's going to work, it will work.”

If you're considering the move away from conventional-tillage, Bradley recommends visiting with a farmer who has already reduced his tillage. “Start with a buddy. Make sure you've got somebody's phone number to call. It takes confidence and practice. You get confidence from practice.”

Reducing your tillage won't pay off the first year, Bradley cautions. “You've got to give it a fair chance and be committed.

“I'd recommend doing a fourth to a third of your crop,” he says.

The key to implementing this system, Bradley says, is planning.

“Ninety percent of the time is spent planning,” Bradley says. Going to the field with a plan will help the transition run smoother than without a plan.

Bradley believes that strip-till is designed for Coastal Plain soils.

He doesn't see any difference between no-till and strip-till, saying that both practices are less expensive than conventional-tillage.

“You basically have equal yields,” Bradley says. “Where the difference is going to happen is in your pocketbook.”

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