Switching from conventional to conservation tillage is like a blind date. Even though your friends assure you you'll enjoy the experience, there's still a sense of trepidation and fear that you'll either make a fool of yourself or your date will have warts.

That may be why only a small percentage of the audience at a recent grain production seminar confessed to using reduced tillage systems. Some continued to express doubts, even after a panel of farmers assured them that conservation tillage and good yields are not mutually exclusive.

“Tillage has become a hot topic as farmers look for ways to reduce costs,” said Travis Miller, Texas A&M Extension Program Leader for Soil and Crop Sciences. “We hope to find ways to make a profit with lower prices.”

Miller served as moderator of a tillage discussion during the Blacklands Income Growth (BIG) Conference held recently in Waco.

Panelists Bobby Henson, Rosebud; Gary Cobb, Milam County; and John Perryman, Moody, outlined their tillage programs and fielded some tough questions from a sometimes skeptical audience.

“It works,” said Henson. “The main advantage for me is the time freed up to do other things, like marketing. Also, I don't need as much labor. And, if something doesn't work, I can always go back to (conventional tillage).”

Henson uses a strip-till system for corn, following the old crop row. “A total no-till system doesn't work as well for me,” he said.

“I use a stalk chopper 30 days after harvest in the fall. After a month, the stalks chop better. I sidedress nitrogen in the spring, as needed.”

Henson said he still has questions about the economics. “I know it works; I'm just not sure how well it works. I want to look at expenses closer to get a better feel for what we're saving,” he said.

Perryman grows cotton, corn, grain sorghum and wheat.

“Rotation is the key,” he said. “I like to follow cotton with corn. That's an easy system. I take care of the cotton stalks with a flail shredder. I apply phosphate just to the side of the row as I plant.”

He follows corn with cotton. “By planting time, old corn stalks have pretty much rotted. Grain sorghum also works well in this system, especially with Gaucho-treated seed.”

Current price for cotton may convince Perryman to take it out of his rotation for the next year or two.

“Planting corn behind corn will present more of a challenge,” he said. “Stands have not been a problem, but yields have not been as high as I wanted. I try to get one pound of grain from one pound of nitrogen. That may not be enough and I'll re-evaluate fertility.”

Perryman controls unwanted vegetation with Roundup and 2,4-D. “Perennials have been more trouble than annuals, but with Roundup Ready varieties, we've been able to clean out weeds in cotton.”

He plants in old rows as well. “It's just basic production,” he said. “We grow the plant, control weeds and put the seed where it can germinate and grow.”

Controlled traffic patterns help, he said. “We've pulled cotton plants and found the tap root penetrating deeply, where it's supposed to go. Occasionally, a field gets rutted and we have to till it, but most of our land has been in no-till since 1992.”

Perryman started with ridge-till.

“We would pick up the middle and throw it on top of the bed,” he said. “But in dry winters, we had hard, dry beds with residue underneath.”

Cobb has been 100 percent no-till for several years.

“I started eight years ago with eight-row equipment; I'm using 16-row units now, planting 30-inch rows. I've tried almost every planter attachment available.

“I've made good stands with corn and milo but I've had trouble with cotton. It's hard to cover the seed adequately. I'm trying to find a way to close the trench better. I've tried a lot of things.”

“I've had little trouble with cotton stands, but I have a different soil type,” Perryman said. “A half-inch rain behind the planter helps a lot.”

Henson said advantages include more than short-term savings. “The better we treat the soil, the more forgiving it is,” he said. “I don't work the soil when it's wet.

“That way, the pores stay open and water infiltration improves.”

He agrees that controlled traffic helps maintain porous soil. “And the compacted areas allow us to move over it a little sooner.”

Henson said learning how to manage old-crop residue is a big factor in con-till success.

An audience member asked how growers had changed insect control with no-till. “I used to apply half rates of insecticides,” Henson said. “Now, I use the full rate.”

Cobb said Gaucho or Adage makes a difference in cotton and grain sorghum. He's concerned about continuous corn.

“It scares me a little because of white grub infestations,” he said, “but I'm not certain that's a tillage issue at all.”

Miller said weed control may improve with strip tillage.

“We stop burying weed seed and studies show significantly fewer weeds in no-till. With reduced tillage systems, we change the dynamics of production.”

rsmith@primediabusiness.com