Oklahoma cotton farmers Doc and Danny Davis are writing the farmer's book on conservation tillage.

It may be getting close to the final chapter after more than 20 years of challenging conventional farming in the red, sandy dirt of Western Oklahoma.

The father and son duo of Flying D Farms, Elk City, Oklahoma, probably will never be completely satisfied in their quest for the perfect conservation tillage system on land where wind can blow so hard fence rows disappear overnight and thunderstorms turn creeks and washes into top soil red torrents.

There is no title for the Davis book. However, “Back to the Future” was one that came to mind at the recent Beltwide Cotton Conference in San Antonio, Texas, as Danny reported on the evolution of no-till cotton on the family's 2,500-acre cotton, cattle and wheat operation.

The gospel of diversification for agronomic reasons has been preached to American farmers for decades. “I guess you can say we have undiversified,” Davis told fellow producers and others listening to an innovation production panel during one of the conference's general sessions.

The Davis family has given new definition to monoculture farming with their pioneering conservation tillage.

Danny's self-effacing Oklahoma drawl belies his passion for changing conventional cotton production in his native Oklahoma. He has seen what that does to the land. More importantly, however, he has seen the cost of conventional farming take his neighbors out of business and he does not want that to happen.

“My dad and I farm to take care of our family,” said Davis. Rising farming costs makes that increasingly difficult. The only way Danny and Doc know how to counter that is to put more dollars in their farm bank account than they take out. That means putting as few hours as possible on tractors.

“There are a lot of costs in tillage,” said Danny. “When you look at buying an $80,000 tractor you start to wonder how many semesters of college that will buy for your children.”

Conservation tillage has helped their cause. However, Danny says conservation to no-till is not quick or simple. “It is a long term commitment,” Danny says, admitting he jumped into it as “the answer to everything.” Instead, that leap opened the door to more challenges than he ever imagined.

Since Danny and Doc made that commitment, they have read the books and listened to the experts. They have tried milo, corn and beans as rotation crops to build up organic matter and reduce erosion. That is what the textbooks say to do. Danny says his farm tells him otherwise.

“Truth of the matter is that where you get only 18 to 25 inches of rain a year, cotton is the only viable tap-rooted crop” hardy enough to make a profitable yield in arid Oklahoma, Danny said.

The challenge is growing continuous cotton while economically reducing erosion and improving organic matter.

Danny finally settled on a cover crop of rye inter-seeded into established cotton with a shielded seeder. Textbooks don't talk about that. Rye, he has discovered, is more durable than wheat or oats and has “many, many times more roots” than any other cover crop he has tried.

Rye has never failed him when inter-seeded with cotton. If he waits until after harvest to seed, there would not be enough moisture to establish and maintain that cover crop through the winter.

“People talk about added agronomic value with rotation crops. You can get organic with rye. We see it with a healthy earthworm population every year,” said Davis.

When Danny and his dad started their conservation tillage journey, organic matter in their fields was at best .2 percent to .3 percent. Now they have fields with well over a full 2 percent organic matter.

Tillage is hard to give up and in the beginning of their conservation tillage transformation, Davis still ran a subsoiler down his permanent traffic pattern rows to relieve compaction. “It was the thing to do; it was something that looked good. It was also recreational tillage,” he said.

Davis has concluded it is unnecessary. Except for chiseling in nutrients, Davis is 100 percent no-till and has something growing on his ground virtually 11 months a year to keep the soil alive. The only time there is not a crop growing is the 30 to 45 days prior to planting Roundup Ready cotton.

He once ran cattle in the spring on the ryegrass, but found he was making $20 to $30 per acre on cattle in exchange for $60 to $70 in cotton income.

By not grazing the rye, Danny figures he was gaining 125 to 150 pounds of additional cotton lint per acre.

In the spring of 2003 he had chest high rye before he took it out in preparation for cotton. On less than 16 inches of rain, they averaged about 440 pounds of dryland cotton per acre.

“I am pretty proud of that,” said Davis.

Western Oklahoma has been in a drought for five years. Average rainfall is 23 to 25 inches, but the average has been only about 17 inches during the past five seasons.

Danny's detractors have been telling him that all non-conventional efforts would go for naught when water became short. Danny counters that his yields have remained consistent thanks to no-till, even in short rainfall years.

The Davis family has picked up new ground, applying their conservation tillage where conventional tillage has been practiced for years. “People tell us we are getting more out of some of these old farms than we should,” Danny said.

Danny and Doc keep writing their book in that red dirt that stays where it belongs, producing good cotton crops.

e-mail: hcline@primediabusiness.com