HARLINGEN, Texas – Buck Braswell believes a good farmer can make new technology work if he wants to badly enough.
He’s a good case in point. When he decided to convert all his Lower Rio Grande Valley cotton and grain sorghum acreage to reduced tillage he sold his bottom plows. “That way I had no choice,” Braswell says. “I had to make it work.”
That was more than 10 years ago, and Braswell says he’s eliminated a lot of labor, energy and mechanical expenses.
“I may occasionally push up a row, but I haven’t had a breaking plow in the ground for 10 years,” he says. “And I haven’t employed a hoe hand for six or seven years. I used to use a lot of manual labor to hoe weeds.”
Braswell, from near Harlingen, farms on his own and also manages a significant acreage for another farm operation. Overall, he oversees about 7,000 acres.
“When I first came here, we had 40 employees and a lot of tractors,” Braswell says. “Now, we have 12 employees and four tractors. Reduced tillage makes that possible. And over the past few years I’ve realized that farming is not as hard as it used to be.”
He says energy represents a big savings. “I figure I’ve cut diesel use by three-fourths,” he says. “Diesel represents a big expense.”
Reduced maintenance on a yard full of equipment and fewer employees necessary to operate and repair it makes a significant cut in overhead.
Braswell points to other, less tangible, advantages as well. He says his soil improved because of reduced tillage. “We keep stubble on the fields all the time,” he says, “so we build up a lot of humus. Organic matter has increased significantly. Also, we see a lot of quail in and around the fields. Quail are sensitive to some pesticides, but they seem to be doing quite well here.”
Rotation, he says, makes reduced tillage systems work better.
“I plant cotton into grain stubble and grain into cotton stubble,” he says. “I never get rid of the stubble. Rotation provides a good companion for conventional tillage and most areas of the country have at least one crop that makes a good rotation option.”
He always keeps something on the ground. “I use 2,4-D as soon as possible after cotton harvest to prevent re-growth from providing a boll weevil host. The Texas Department of Agriculture approves this manner of stalk destruction. It probably works better than mechanical. I rarely shred stalks.
“The soil just gets stronger. I can work the fields faster without worrying about sand blowing and keeping the stubble on the soil does good things for the environment. I’ve reduced a lot of compaction with rotation and reduced tillage.”
Braswell says controlled traffic patterns limit hard pans. “We have to keep the wheels in the same path to prevent compaction. That’s a key.”
He says leaving the previous crop stalks in the ground also keeps the soil open and provides channels for the next crop’s roots to follow.
Braswell had committed to conservation tillage before the advent of Roundup Ready technology. “We had to use a lot of Fusilade and Staple with a hooded sprayer,” he says. “But Roundup Ready varieties make the system so much easier.”
He’s looking forward to Roundup Flex and LibertyLink technology. “Roundup Flex will be a big improvement,” he says. “Occasionally we’ll get a rain that prevents us from applying Roundup on time. Pigweed gets away from us and is hard to kill. After the five-leaf stage on cotton we can’t go over-the-top with Roundup. The Flex will extend that application window.”
He says the LibertyLink system, using Ignite herbicide, will control weeds that Roundup may be weak on. “I’m looking forward to trying it,” he says. “I’ve never been one to get stuck in a rut. I want to try new technology.”
Braswell’s conservation tillage recipe for cotton starts when the grain sorghum crop is about 10 days from harvest. “I spray Roundup with a high-cycle sprayer and just let the stubble lay after I cut it. When grass and weeds start coming on, around September, I’ll spray two more times. Some years I’ll bed it up.”
Braswell may put rows up in December and January and applies fertilizer. He uses a 22-11-04 blend for cotton. I also add humic acid and zinc to help free up the nutrients.
He knocks down rows with a PrepMaster, if he didn’t build rows in the fall.
“The week before I plant, I always spray Roundup to get any small weeds. I may spray again when cotton is just coming out of the ground. I want it clean when I plant.”
Braswell will use Roundup again when he defoliates “to get a good, clean crop.”
He starts his grain crop by spraying cotton in late August with 2,4-D to kill stalks. “After the first rain, I’ll spray again with Roundup and 2,4-D to take out volunteer cotton. If necessary, I’ll make another application or two into January. And I’ll spray again just before I plant.”
Here’s where his recipe changes from cotton. He may cultivate grain sorghum, usually the fourth or fifth day after planting and with a light dose of Roundup. “I want it clean when the grain comes up,” he says.
“I’ll use the cultivators again when the grain gets 6 to 8 inches high. Cultivation is the only way to keep grain sorghum clean,” he says. “But I never cultivate cotton.”
He applies fertilizer, 25-5-05 when he pushes up the rows.
Braswell uses seed technology to reduce applicator exposure and improve pest control and crop health.
“I treat all my grain and cotton seed with Cruiser. It’s good for my labor and good for seedling health,” he says. Cottonseed also gets PGR IV and zinc added to the seed.”
In addition to herbicide technology, Braswell also uses Bollgard and Bollgard II cotton varieties. “I’ll have some of each this year,” he says. Variety selection will include DPL 555, FM 800 and BCG 30.
He says with new technology, including seed treatments, his biggest expenses are now in the planter.
Braswell admits to taking a little ribbing years ago when he first tested reduced tillage systems. “My neighbors thought I was crazy,” he says. “But after three or four years, they saw what conservation tillage could do and started asking me questions.”
He says yields may not increase substantially but are usually better in a dry year. Reduced labor, lower energy costs and less equipment demand and maintenance make a difference.
“The organic matter we’re building helps a lot,” Braswell says. “And other farmers tell me they are saving three or four trips across the fields with a disk by using Roundup. Nobody disks anymore and few use cultivators. Just about every farmer in the Valley uses some form or conservation tillage. And about 40 percent of the area’s farmers are treating their fields similar to the way we treat ours.”
Braswell says he learns something new every day he farms. “And when I learn something, I’m happy to pass it along to anyone who asks.”