Ernest Bippert parked most of his tillage tools 17 years ago and started working with the Natural Resources Conservation Service to find ways to save soil and water on his Kleberg County, Texas, farm.

He's succeeded.

Bippert, a former Southwest Farm Press High Cotton Award Winner, talked about his journey from tillage reliance to conservation tillage at the annual National Conservation Systems Cotton and Rice Conference recently in Houston.

He now has about six years of conservation tillage experience under his belt with grain sorghum and cotton and he's sold on the practice. “We had one block of dryland cotton last year that made 3.2 bales per acre,” he said. “We had 25 inches of rain.”

Bippert said in his “old style farming” he used tillage mainly to control weeds. “We were putting 1,200 hours a year on a tractor, wearing out implements (tines, rotary hoes and such) and we had a highly erodible farm that was blowing away. I started looking for ways to conserve soil. I started working with Robert Schmidt, NRCS, in 2001.”

He said Roundup Ready varieties paved the way for effective conservation tillage systems. “Before that, it could be a disaster. In 2007 we have new chemistry, new varieties, and auto steer technology that makes conservation tillage much easier than it was back in the 1990s. With a global economy, we have to take advantage of any technology that makes us more efficient.”

Bippert said reduced till systems reduce labor and energy consumption. “I save about 3 gallons of fuel per acre, about $5 an acre on machinery costs.” And tractor hours dropped from 1,200 to 200 to 300 per year.

He's also making his soil better. He's building organic matter. “I've reduced soil erosion by 90 percent and have improved water quality,” he said. “Runoff is significantly less and I keep nutrients and chemicals in the field.” Wind erosion, he said, is cut to zero.

Bippert said conservation tillage improves wildlife habitat and reduces fossil fuel emissions.

Orthman strip till

He uses an Orthman strip till tool that “doesn't leave trenches. It's equipped with a shallow-running mold knife and rolling baskets. It moves some soil in the middles to create a clean seed area, about two inches wide. That area warms up quicker in the spring.”

He runs over grain sorghum fields as soon after harvest as possible if moisture is adequate, and adds phosphorus and potassium into the dead stalks. “I terminate the gain as quickly as possible.”

He lets volunteer gain grow and uses it as a winter cover. “I stick to a 50/50 cotton and grain sorghum rotation.”

He uses a burn down herbicide “to get weeds before they get too tall.” He plants with a John Deere MaxEmerge planter and says planting into cotton stalks is easier than following grain. He uses a spike wheel applicator to put down fertilizer. A press wheel follows the five-inch spike to press fertilizer down to about 6 inches deep.

In season, he uses a hooded sprayer and Gramoxone in grain sorghum to control grasses. He says at one pint per acre Gramoxone may discolor grain sorghum slightly but will not injure it or reduce yield potential. “The grain sorghum plant needs to be at least 15 inches tall and I like it a little higher than that.”

Bippert has compared his no-till system to v-ripped fields. “I've seen standing water in v-ripped middles and water ran into bar ditches. In no-till there was no water standing. All the moisture soaked into the soil.”

He said no-till absorbs water 10 times faster than tilled fields. Old crop stems, roots and earthworm tunnels soak up moisture.

Bippert has used the Environmental Quality Improvement Program, EQIP, to help convert conventional tillage to a conservation till system. He shreds cotton stalks after harvest to prevent regrowth that could harbor boll weevils through the winter.

Stalks slow erosion

“I like to leave stalks six inches to eight inches tall to help control wind erosion,” he said.

Bippert says he's proud of the production he's gotten from conservation tillage and happy with the improvements in soil and wind erosion control, but one of the big advantages he says is saved time. And that means he has more time to spend with his grandchildren.

Program benefits

Ernest Bippert, Kleberg County, Texas, cotton and grain farmer, has used conservation tillage for both grain sorghum and cotton since 2001. He says benefits include:

  • Reduces labor and saves time.

  • Saves fuel (by 3.5 gallons per acre).

  • Reduces machinery wear (estimated $5 per acre savings).

  • Improves soil tilth and minimizes soil compaction.

  • Increases organic matter.

  • Traps soil moisture to improve water availability.

  • Reduces soil erosion.

  • Improves water quality (less runoff).

  • Reduces wind erosion.

  • Improves wildlife habitat.

  • Improves air quality (fewer fossil fuel emissions and fewer soil particles in the air).

  • Carbon sequestration.

Conservation tillage allows farmers to park a lot of tillage equipment and they may reduce the number of tractors they need to work the same number of acres.

But getting into conservation tillage from scratch may require a few pieces of specialized equipment.

Ernest Bippert, Kleberg County, Texas, has converted his grain and cotton farm to conservation tillage and recommends the following tools:

  • Soil compaction meter.

  • Strip-till equipment. (He uses an Orthman strip till tool).

  • Self-propelled highboy sprayer.

  • Hooded sprayers.

  • A high residue planter.

  • Spike wheel fertilizer applicator.