CHANGES IN ATTITUDES and changes in technology over the past 15 years have made conservation tillage an important option for many Southern High Plains farmers.
"We see a lot more interest in conservation tillage now," said Wayne Keeling, agronomist with the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station at Lubbock. "Attitudes have changed and we have technology that makes the practice more feasible."
Keeling said a number of "pioneers" showed they could maintain or increase yields with cover crops and less tillage.
One of those pioneers, Buster Adair of Wellman, participated on a farmer conservation tillage panel at the recent Western Agricultural Chemical Institute annual meeting at Lubbock. Brad Palmer, Yoakley County, and Lexie Fennell, Lamb County, also outlined their conservation tillage programs.
Adair, who has been using conservation tillage methods since 1987, plants both peanuts and cotton into a cover crop.
"I plant wheat in cotton stubble and leave a gap in the row," he said. "I leave the cotton stalks as long as possible. They get brittle at the top, and by April the stalks will shatter. If farmers shred these stalks, they should leave about eight inches above the ground; otherwise, they can't pull them out of the ground."
He also plants cotton into year-old, double-row milo stalks. He beds the land slightly to get rid of the stalks.
He plants peanuts in wheat stubble. "I run a stalk cutter to lay the stubble down. If it's too thick, peanuts tend to bunch up and the vines will not run."
He also likes double-row peanuts and says the twin rows give him a 10 to 20 percent yield boost. "I anticipate a 5,000 pound per acre yield."
Adair said managing a cover crop properly improves crop stands. "I use a chopper behind the combine for wheat residue," he said. "A chaff spreader also helps."
He said with wheat that yields 60 bushels per acre or less, he can plant cotton with just a trash whipper. If yields run higher than 60 bushels, he uses a coulter to handle the heavy residue."
Traffic control is essential in conservation tillage, Adair said. "I maintain traffic in the same place so I don't compact soil where I'll plant the next year.
"Farmers need to watch module drivers and keep them in established traffic lanes. Driving across fields will leave tracks and compaction that show up for as long as five years."
He has banished the breaking plow. "I don't break the land any more," he said. "I have fields that have not been broken in 15 years."
Adair said switching to conservation tillage mandates changes in weed control practices. "I use more herbicides with reduced tillage. and as I change crops, I have to watch chemical selection and crop susceptibility carefully. I recommend sterilizing spray tanks and cleaning in-line screens when changing herbicides."
Yoakum County farmer Brad Palmer is experimenting with Ultra Narrow Row cotton this year, planting three seed per foot of row in 10-inch row spacing.
"I planted into wheat stubble and used about 150,000 seed per acre," he said. "The planter worked well and I had an excellent stand."
He said he planted a little heavier, anticipating difficulty obtaining a stand. "Just about every seed came up," he said.
"So far, this has been a good test and it looks like we'll make three-bale cotton."
He terminated wheat with Roundup and used a second application when cotton reached the four-leaf stage. He also applied Dual. "The fields are clean," he said.
Palmer also emphasizes the need to maintain traffic lanes.
Lexie Fennell follows a systems approach to conservation tillage. "I like a wheat or rye cover crop, to add organic matter to the soil," Fennell said. "After harvest, we re-bed the land, add fertilizer and sow a cover crop."
Fennell plants every row in a cover, seeding 45 pounds of seed per acre. "I irrigate lightly three or four times.
"When rye comes up, in late March, I use a stalk cutter to get cotton stalks out. I have to come in early or the traffic will kill the rye. After getting the stalks, I water the rye and it comes back."
Fennell terminates the cover crop in late April. "I may use as little as 16 ounces of Roundup," he said. "I need 24 ounces if I have tumbleweed."
He waters the field lightly after terminating the rye.
He uses a John Deere 1700 planter, "with no special attachments."
Fennell has eliminated a few trips across the fields, and he's learning to live with a few weeds.
He said determining the best time to terminate the cover crop is an inexact science. "We have a narrow window," he said. "If we terminate too early, we may allow more wind erosion. If I wait too long, we lose moisture.
"It's also a tricky balancing act to schedule herbicide applications and irrigation. In some cases, we can't get around quickly enough to activate yellow herbicides. In some cases, we need to spray and irrigate at the same time. Juggling schedules is always a challenge," he said.
But he said the cover crop reduces evaporation loss enough to retain winter rainwater. "But it never seems to recover quite as much as it uses."
The system, Fennell said, allows him to make a cotton crop earlier. "I can be more timely with application of inputs," he said. "I add nitrogen through the system during the growing season."
Fennell has abandoned crop rotation. "I switched from a 50/50 corn and cotton program to 100 percent cotton," he said. "Corn requires more water, and by switching to just cotton, I can irrigate for maximum yields. I think cotton will outperform corn or maize."
Keeling said Roundup Ready cotton, Staple herbicide, and other technology has allowed Southern High Plains farmers to adopt conservation tillage techniques.
"Farmers may want to develop hybrid systems for individual farms," Keeling said. "They may not find the system useful across the entire farm but adaptable to certain sections. But with either total no-till or a modification, farmers can go a long way toward reducing in-season cultivation."
He said producing a residue crop and conserving soil moisture offers a challenge. "If moisture conditions were ideal, I'd recommend growing as much residue as possible," he said. "But, with limited water, farmers should grow enough to hold the soil. That doesn't take too much moisture."
He said residue captures more moisture from drag hoses pulled across the fields. "And if we get rain, the cover captures more of the rainfall.