Simple arithmetic plays a role in Ernest Bippert’s quest to eliminate as many trips across his grain sorghum and cotton fields as possible. He figures he saves as much as $28,000 on 1,000 acres of grain sorghum and more than $35,000 on the same amount of cotton per year with conservation tillage.

But the benefits go beyond the numbers. Bippert, speaking at the recent Conservation Tillage Cotton and Rice Conference in Houston, lays out a laundry list of advantages he’s found in reduced tillage systems. “It increases organic matter,” Bippert said. “We’re releasing less carbon, so we have more in the soil to build organic matter for future crops. “That organic matter helps trap soil moisture to improve water availability, too. The crop residue on the soil surface acts as tiny dams that slow runoff and increase infiltration.”

He bolsters that effect with furrow dikes. “We average only 25 inches of rain a year (near Kingsville in Kleberg County, Texas) so we have to conserve as much as we can. And occasionally, we can have water and wind erosion problems. Conserving moisture is one of the main reasons I tried conservation tillage.”

He said furrow dikes make a good fit with no-till planting. “We don’t have to rebuild them as often because we don’t cultivate. They will rock a cotton picker, however.” Water actually moves into the soil profile better without tillage, he said. He tested the theory. Bippert used a V-rip implement on part of his acreage and left an adjacent section undisturbed.

“We saw water standing in the V-ripped section but not where we did not rip,” he said. “With no-till, we leave old root channels and earthworm tunnels to move water into the soil. When we plow, the soil seals rapidly and holds moisture on the surface.”

Bippert’s farm operation, about 2,000 acres, includes both sandy and heavier clay soils. “The system works well in either,” he said. “We believe we reduce soil erosion by 90 percent with conservation tillage. That depends on the amount of residue we leave on the soil surface. That residue also holds nutrients and pesticides in the field so we reduce potential for runoff by half.”

The system benefits others as well. Bippert said reduced pesticide use and increased soil residue improve wildlife habitat. “And we’re improving air quality by reducing wind erosion and keeping soil particles in the field. We’re also reducing fuel emissions from tractors because we make far fewer trips across the fields.” He figures he saves 3.5 gallons of fuel per acre, 3,500 gallons on a 1,000-acre farm.

Fewer trips also mean less labor and less wear on machinery. “We estimate that we save $5 per acre on machinery wear, that’s another $5,000 saved on a 1000-acre farm.”

Farmers interested in converting to conservation tillage or trying it out on limited acreage need a few tools to make it work, Bippert believes.

“No-till farmers need a soil compaction monitor to gauge how much good they’re doing,” he said. “These are relatively inexpensive and should be one of the first things they buy. “They’ll also need some strip-till equipment, a Max Emerge planter, a spike-wheel fertilizer applicator, rolling basket attachments, hooded sprayers and a self-propelled hi-boy spray rig.”

He uses an Orthman strip-till tool with a mold knife to break up compaction. “We till about eight to nine inches deep in the fall,” he said.

He also uses a tool he built that pulls up a bed with minimal soil disturbance. He likes the hooded sprayer for problem grasses in grain sorghum. He uses gramoxone when the sorghum gets 12-inches to 15-inches tall. “We can lose a lot of production with just a few grass stalks every foot or so,” he said.

With the hooded sprayers he puts the gramoxone underneath the grain sorghum canopy. “We might burn the lower leaves a little but I’ve seen no effect on yield.” It beats cultivation, he said. “We save $5 per acre by not cultivating and I’ve noticed grain sorghum that’s been cultivated go into a stress.”

He recommends keeping spray pressure below 12 pounds with either Roundup or Gramoxone. “I like the hi-boy for over-the top applications for weed control and for pre-conditioning grain sorghum for harvest.”

Bippert says yields with conservation tillage have been excellent. He says reduced tillage systems mark an evolution in his farming operation. “I have partnered with the Natural Resource Conservation Service for 15 years to improve operations on my farm,” he said.

e-mail: rsmith@primediabusiness.com