Southwest conservation tillage DALE SWINBURN got interested in farming as a teenager, when his schoolteacher parents invested in farmland.

"I fell in love with the land," he says.

He got interested in conservation tillage at a Kansas field day where he saw graphic evidence of what rainwater takes away from bare ground. That was back in 1994 and he's since converted to conservation tillage on his cotton and grain farm.

Moisture retention is the big advantage, he says.

"Water is the number one limiting factor in crop production for West Texas," Swinburn says. "This system saves water and saves money.

"It is expensive to add more water to a farm. It's costly to buy more land to get water resources and it's expensive to drill more wells to increase moisture availability.

"But with conservation tillage, we save the water that falls on the fields. We don't plow out our moisture."

Swinburn says it's increasingly hard to make a living from a farm with cotton and grain prices as low as they are and with rainfall as scarce as it's been for the past few years.

"It seems to get more difficult every year," he says. "But we can't cut back on fertilizer or quality seed. We have to change the way we use water. And we can make a good crop with limited rainfall with conservation tillage systems."

Swinburn recounts his journey from conventional to no-till farming.

"Weed control back in the `50s depended almost entirely on cultivation," he says. "We began to get a few herbicides, Treflan, triazine and others in the `60s, but through the `60s and `70s we still did a lot of plowing."

He says farmers used tillage equipment "that was fashionable at the time. It was like clothes," he says, "whatever was in, we tried."

Early in the `90s Swinburn began looking for ways to improve efficiency in light of diminishing profit margins. "We added sprinkler systems, for instance, to improve yields."

And in 1994 he attended a Kansas State University field day. He was especially interested in plots that demonstrated soil compaction and soil runoff.

"They had a rain machine that covered a field, half of which was clean-tilled and half planted in stubble. That provided a graphic illustration of water running out of the clean-tilled field."

Swinburn farms a clay loam soil and saw potential for reduced tillage on his land.

"I had used a pre-plant incorporated herbicide for years, so I had to incorporate it into the soil. When Roundup Ready plants came along, I was able to discard the yellow herbicide and switch to Roundup."

He plants in old-crop stubble or into a cover crop. He leaves a bare seed bed to improve planting efficiency. He terminates the cover crop before planting cotton.

"I don't plow any more," Swinburn says. But he's realist enough to realize that any production systems comes with a few warts.

"I see a lot of advantages with conservation tillage," Swinburn says. "The main one is water conservation. We always lose moisture when we cultivate. Conservation tillage also improves soil tilth. We get by with smaller tractors, less labor and less equipment. We save fuel, labor and time."

But there are disadvantages, as well.

"Herbicides are costly," he says. "And cover crops need water to grow and we take moisture out of the soil profile to grow a crop that we'll terminate. That was a big concern this year. We terminate the cover crop as quickly as possible to save moisture."

Swinburn says necessary conservation tillage practices coincide with one of the busiest time of the year on the farm. "When we spray over-the-top, timeliness is critical," he says. "It has to be done and it's a hectic time. We have tried to provide excess spray capacity to make certain we get around on time."

Hauling water is also a chore, he says. "We haul a lot of water with this system and that makes it a little less efficient."

He says no-till fields are not as smooth as conventional. "Rough ground can be annoying," he says. "We probably should have smoothed the fields out before we began no-till and we may go back in and take care of it. I believe in conservation tillage but I'm not a no-till purist."

Swinburn has been on a no-till system for four years and says he began to see some significant improvements in soil structure after three years. "It takes five years to get the soil right again," he says.