Lawrence Friesenhahn pulls no punches when it comes to what he thinks about no-till cotton and grain production.
He's convinced the system has kept him in business.
“If I had not started no-till eight years ago I would not be farming today,” Friesenhahn said during the eighth annual Conservation Tillage Cotton and Rice Conference held recently in Houston.
“Folks used to call this ‘broke-till,’” Friesenhahn, a Knippa, Texas, cotton and grain farmer, says. The thinking was that when farmers got desperate enough to cut back on tillage it was just a matter of time before he went broke.
“We've come a long way from that. Perceptions on conservation tillage have changed,” Friesenhahn says.
He says reduced tillage may be what allows farmers to increase efficiency and survive with depressed commodity prices and a dependence on foreign markets. He's also convinced that productivity increases with the conservation efforts.
“My program begins as soon as harvest is over,” he says. He uses a chaff spreader and a chopper on combines and also likes dual wheels that straddle rows and prevent compaction.
He also uses a flail shredder but says chemical termination of old-crop residue (especially cotton and milo) is critical. “We can plow up crop residue but chemical termination is the best bet.”
He likes to shred stalks and then apply 2,4-D. “I want to get the chemical on no later than six hours after I shred stalks,” he says. “Six hours is the maximum window. And apply with at least 10 gallons of water per acre. We get a 98 percent kill rate.”
Friesenhahn cautions farmers to read 2, 4-D labels carefully as not all are labeled for stalk and stubble use. He says tillage takes more trips across the field to kill crop residue.
He showed photographs taken in his fields just days before his presentation. “On January 10, my fields were clean,” he says.
A reliable, efficient sprayer plays a critical role in the process. He uses a self-propelled unit with a 75-foot boom. “At 15 miles per hour, I cover about 80 acres a day. We have to have a sprayer in no-till production that's timely and reliable.”
In the spring, after he burns down winter weeds, he knocks old crop crowns out of the way. “I plant with a MaxEmerge planter with residue wheels in front. I use pneumatic down-pressure springs with a flip switch in the cab. I can make adjustments easily.”
He carries liquid fertilizer on the tool bar and uses spoke closing wheels when conditions are wet, rubber tires if it's dry. “We have to adjust to conditions.”
He's found that Case IH press wheels work best in his system and says they don't mash soil against the disk. “It's especially helpful in clay soils.”
He uses a metal seed tube to get seed into the bottom of the furrow. “I found this one on the Internet,” he says.
Friesenhahn also uses a modification to put pop-up fertilizer under his corn. The add-on unit places fertilizer in the bottom of the furrow and the seed tube drops the seed on top of it. “Other systems I've used scattered fertilizer all over the place,” he says.
He plants corn, grain sorghum and cotton, and says the residue he saves from those crops by not plowing has improved his soil significantly.
“I can find from one to six earthworms under every corn stalk I pull up,” he says.
Organic matter has improved the soil's ability to soak up moisture. “The soil doesn't seal over when it rains.”
Those improvements did not occur immediately, however. “We see organic matter increase over time,” he says. “By the fourth year, the advantage becomes evident.”
He dug a soil pit last summer to verify what he suspected about soil improvements. The pit was seven-feet deep, cut out with a backhoe in a cornfield.
“I wanted to see what was going on with compaction after growing crops continuously for eight years without tillage,” he says.
He used a pressure washer to expose one side of the pit and checked for compaction with the point of a knife. “We found none,” he says. “Soil was uniform all the way down.”
He was surprised, however, when a Natural Resources Conservation Service agent viewed some of the digital photos he made of the pit and asked him to look closely at the wall.
“I saw a distinct color change that was moving deeper into the soil profile,” Friesenhahn says.
That color variation came from organic matter working its way deeper and deeper into the soil. He also found roots as deep as four feet and earthworms down to five feet.
Friesenhahn has been careful to stay on the same traffic lanes with each crop so that the planting row is never prone to compaction.
“By accident last year, I moved over into the row middle and found no difference at harvest,” he says. He tested the middles with a probe and found no compaction in traffic lanes.
“Organic matter keeps the soil from compacting,” he says. He's not ready to abandon controlled traffic but he intends to study to system a bit more this year.
Friesenhahn says conservation tillage has paid off for his operation and believes it holds promise for other farmers. He's also convinced that he's improved his land and prevented erosion by leaving crop residue on the soil and heavy tillage equipment in the shed.
The Conservation Tillage, Cotton and Rice Conference is sponsored by Mid-America Farm Publications. Farm Press Publications is a media-co-sponsor of the event, which alternates between locations in the Mid-South and Southwest.