KERMIT SHULTS began testing conservation tillage on his Terry County, Texas, farm more than 20 years ago, hoping to find a way to control wind erosion. Within a few years he had switched his entire cotton and grain operation to reduced till systems, and he now continues to refine the process as new technology comes along.
In the meantime, yields have improved, costs have decreased, and his soil has become more mellow, higher in organic matter, and better at holding water. And it doesn't blow away with the winds that sweep across the Texas plains.
"I just wanted to find some way to get away from blowing dirt," Shults says. "I tried no-till grain sorghum in 1978 and no-till cotton in 1980. In 1983, I planted my first whole field to no-till cotton. That field has not been plowed since and it's one of my highest producing fields."
He says a double-disk opener on his planter is the only plow that field sees.
"No-till cotton yields average better than two bales per acre," he says. "This is sandy soil, and yields have gradually increased with no-till."
Reduced tillage has allowed Shults to cut back in other areas as well. "I let all my rented land go," he says. "Consequently, I decreased the number of tractors and the amount of equipment I need. I'm down to 600 acres and it's all irrigated, except for corners, and I have those in the Conservation Reserve Program."
HE FOLLOWS a wheat, cotton and soybean rotation program. "Following cotton harvest, I plant wheat. I have used rye and really think rye might offer more advantages, but I don't have a good market for the seed. I harvest and sell grain from my cover crops."
At one time, he double-cropped grain sorghum and wheat, but lower grain prices and grass problems favor soybeans. "If a farmer uses grain sorghum long enough, he'll run into grass problems," Shults says. "That's not the case with soybeans."
Shults says some growers worry that a cover crop will take too much moisture from the soil, leaving little to make cotton.
"I think we recover more water because of the more porous nature of soil under conservation tillage than we lose producing a cover crop," Shults says.
He served on the Soil Conservation Service board at one time and says studies from SCS showed that the increased tilth and organic matter captured rainfall much better than soil in conventional tillage. "The rain all soaks into the soil. But, within a day or two, the land firms up enough to allow us back in to work."
"No-till also offers advantages in windy times," he says. "The soil stays put. In my system, we cover the soil eleven and half months of the year. And we have at least some crop stubble on all the time."
He doesn't shred cotton stalks. "I leave all the crop stubble and don't shred it. All the stubble deteriorates rapidly and seems just to melt into the soil. It's never a problem with planting."
He plants Roundup Ready soybeans. "Herbicide resistance takes a lot of risk out of no-till production," he says.
Volunteer Roundup Ready soybeans, however, have caused some concern when a Roundup Ready, no-till cotton crop follows.
"I have a trash manager on my planter that scoots the soybean seed to the side of the row," Shults says. "Then I can take out volunteer soybeans with gramoxone."
He says his fields are more productive than they were under conventional tillage systems.
Shults says his system has evolved over time and he's still learning how to improve. "Don't let anyone tell you that you can start out with no-till and it will be smooth and easy," he says. "After 18 years, I find new problems every year."
He says technology, such as Roundup Ready, Bollgard cotton, hooded sprayers and better herbicides, have made no-till farming less risky than when he first started.
He also cautions newcomers to the practice to be patient. "It takes three to four years to see significant improvements," he says. "But I think I could drive my pick-up across my fields and would need to put it in four-wheel drive. The soil is that mellow.
"And fields are producing more now than they ever did with conventional tillage."
Shults explained his conservation tillage system recently at the Monsanto Center of Excellence field Day at Lamesa.