Petersburg, Texas, farmers R.N. Hopper and his father Ronnie are pleased with the progress they’ve made with residue management from reduced tillage systems.
“But we haven’t improved soil structure,” R.N. says. “We’re trying to figure out how to do that by moving to a complete no-till system.”
The Hoppers raised cotton and grain for years, but left cotton out of their rotation the past three years, concentrating on food corn and wheat. They plan to put cotton back into the mix this year and also add a legume to add nitrogen to the soil.
This switch will be the first move in a plan to develop a more sustainable and more intense production system that will include corn, cotton, wheat, a legume and live cover on most fields most of the time.
“We understand that there are two basic components to no-till,” Ronnie said. “Soil and residue management are each important. We’ve been mindful of the residue with conservation tillage, but now we need to take steps to develop better soil structure.”
They’ve cut back on tillage significantly over the past few years. “But we still plow every two or three years,” R.N. says. “We’re getting the benefit of the ground cover but we’re not improving the soil structure.”
He recently attended a no-till conference in Salinas, Kansas, and says he learned a lot about the potential for continuous no-till production. He said some speakers discussed success with dryland crops in no-till production systems with as little as 16 inches of annual rainfall.
He and Ronnie think crop mix will be a key. “We want to follow a broadleaf crop with a grassy crop the next year. Farmers know that rotation is a good thing but we’ve gotten away from that. We need to get back to it.”
“We also want to have something growing on the land as long as we can and maintain fewer fallow periods,” R.N. says. “Soil micro-organisms prefer live roots to dead residue. The more of these organisms we have, the faster the surface residue will decay. This will increase the level of organic matter in the soil and aid in moisture retention.”
Ronnie says the switch will require a change in attitude. “Our natural instinct is to go in and plow. This will take a lot of commitment.”
They both agree that conversion to continuous no-till is more feasible with transgenic crops.
“We’re talking about sustainability,” R.N. said. “It’s amazing, the technology that has come together to make this system possible. We also know more about plant health and nutrition than we did before.”
They’ve been moving toward no-till for several years. “About 40 percent of our irrigated acreage has not been plowed in three years,” R.N. says. “That gives us a head start.”
“We’re not far from having the equipment we need for no-till, either,” his dad says. “We’ve held back on continuous no-till because we didn’t have the fertility figured out. I think we may have it now. We’re thinking about it.”
The process will begin this year as they add 1,500 acres of cotton to about that many acres of corn.
“For three years we’ve been growing corn and wheat,” R.N. says. They had half circles in corn and half in wheat. They’ll plant cotton in the wheat stubble and may do corn on corn for a year or two until they get the rotation system in place.
“We’re working on the system,” R.N. says. The plan is to divide the farm commodity mix into fourths: cotton, black-eyed peas or other legume, wheat and corn. Eventually they hope to add winter cover crops that can manufacture some of the nitrogen for their corn. Some years they may get nitrogen carryover for the cotton that will follow the corn.
“We hope to get to the point where we manufacture nitrogen. We’ll also use labor and water more efficiently,” R.N. says. They have one irrigation pivot that stretches three-quarters of a mile from end to end and they believe with the technique they are developing they can use that system to full advantage, staggering water use throughout the growing season to take optimum advantage of various crop demands.
They also believe the cropping system will spread planting and harvest so they are not rushed to get 1,500 acres of corn or cotton planted in five days. Harvest will also be smoother. Instead of planting and harvesting 1,500 acres each of corn and cotton, they’ll plant 750 each, most years, and use the remaining acreage for peas and wheat.
“We still may work just as many hours, but they’ll be spread out better,” Ronnie says.
“We’ll work into the system slowly,” R.N. adds.
They still have their cotton equipment. “We’re moving back into cotton this year because we believe the cotton will fit well behind last year’s summer fallowed wheat,” Ronnie says. “The next evolution will be to the no-till system, so we need even more crop diversity.”
They planned this system primarily for irrigated acreage. “Dryland production is still a question,” R.N. says. “We’re thinking about cotton one year and then a legume cover crop to manufacture nitrogen and residue the next.”
They expect no production decline as they move to no-till. “I don’t think we’ll see production go down,” R.N. says. “And I hope to see a gradual increase.”
They say GPS technology also helps convert to continuous no-till. “GPS on the combine, planter and spray rig are big advantages,” Ronnie says.
R.N. expects some “growing pains” as they begin developing the production system. They may need to plant corn behind corn for a year or two until they get the field patterns established the way they want.
But as they evolve into continuous no-till production they expect to see yields equal to or better than they make now. They also expect to see improvements in soil organic matter, tilth, water retention and root penetration.
It’s not a quick fix, they say, and expect soil structure dividends to begin showing up only after three or four years of continuous no-till with the big advantages coming perhaps a generation down the road.
“The system will provide sustainability,” R.N. says.