San Patricio County, Texas, farmer Jimmy Adams has turned up a lot of soil since he started farming in 1961 but he's moved a lot less of it the past three years, since he switched his cotton, corn and grain sorghum operation to a minimum till system.

“I'll never go back (to conventional tillage),” Adams says.

Yields with reduced or no-till crops might not always beat what he could make with conventional planting, but production is equal and Adams sees other advantages.

“Why did I change? Labor and machinery are two big reasons,” he says. “I was using five employees and now I'm down to just two. Managing labor creates a big headache with all the paperwork, the liabilities, rules and regulations and workman's comp programs.”

He's saving money on fuel as well. “Cutting back on diesel fuel made a big difference this year,” he says. “Still, I put a lot of hours on a sprayer but I don't use tractors nearly as much as I did with conventional planting. I use a tractor to pull an Orthman cultivator and then plant. I mostly get by with a rotary hoe. I don't need much more.”

He used to run a moldboard plow “going 18 inches deep. I think that may have helped with cotton root rot but it was not cheap,” he says.

He's using rotation to get around the disease problem, where he can.

“I rotate all my dryland cotton. I only irrigate my continuous cotton.”

Leaves stalks

Adams leaves grain and cotton stalks in the ground. “Stalks keep soil in place,” he says. “And I don't have trouble planting into the stubble.”

He's found that leaving stalks also improves tilth.

“I just leave them standing and in November will knife in my fertilizer about 12 inches from the row. I might try to get in a little closer for the next crop. And I'm considering a chelate fertilizer. They claim that it doesn't tie up, so I may put it out a little earlier. If not, I'll put fertilizer in closer, within 3 inches of the row. That may help with planting too by loosening up the soil a bit.”

He sprays 2, 4-D to kill cotton stalks. “It usually takes two shots. And I'll apply Roundup in January or February as a burndown and may add another herbicide to take care of volunteer corn. I plant mostly Roundup Ready cotton varieties and all my corn is Roundup Ready.”

He tried planting a winter cover crop once. “Wheat dried the soil out too much. We didn't get enough rain to make the wheat and it sucked all the planting moisture out of the ground. I like the idea but we can't count on enough rain to make the cover crop.”

Adams says soil compaction provided the catalyst to convince him to try no-till. He began the experiment about five years ago and has one cotton field that has been in continuous cotton and continuous no-till since.

“Most of my acreage has been in no-till for three years,” he says.

Adjust, adapt

He's had to adjust and adapt to conditions.

“Year before last, we had trouble planting,” he says. “It was a real dry year and even conventional cotton had trouble making a stand. Some was almost a complete failure.”

Last year, he used an Orthman cultivator to throw dirt mulch underneath the stalks to keep the soil from drying out and getting hard.

Weed control has not been a detriment to no-till. He says Prowl and Atrazine do a good job controlling weeds in grain sorghum. “I don't have much grass trouble. It's just not that hard to control in milo.”

He said early rainfall made weed control a bit more difficult for cotton. “Some of it almost got away from me, even some of the Roundup Ready varieties. Staple and Select helped and I came back with Envoke and cleaned it up. The big weeds were dead.”

Adams says this was the first year he used Envoke. “It looks good. Even large cockleburs were dead.”

He used a hooded sprayer on his Roundup Ready cotton. “I sprayed when the cotton was about one foot high. I got some careless weeds but not all of them.”

He says he's used Staple and Select on his continuous cotton, at broadleaf weed label rates. “I used gramoxone and Direx with the hooded sprayer.”

Yields comparable

Adams says yields with no-till are comparable to conventional tillage. “Last year was the first good test,” he says, “and I couldn't tell much difference. I made more than two bales per acre on some dryland cotton and most made one and a half. Year before last, I made three bales on irrigated cotton. Last year was not quite as good, about two and a quarter bales, counting the corners and about two and a half under the pivot.”

Adams says his normal varieties have worked well in reduced till cotton.

He says the system works even better in corn. “It's just a lot easier with corn. It's easier to plant and easier to get a stand. He says corn yield could top 130 bushels per acre.

Adams says a good sprayer makes a big difference in reduced tillage systems. “I bought a new sprayer and that's about the most important piece of equipment I own. Air induction nozzles help with coverage and restrict wind drift.”

Adams says even though his usual cotton varieties are doing well seed companies likely will develop new options, adapted for reduced tillage systems. “That will give us more flexibility,” he says.

“With current spray systems and herbicides, we already have a good weed control program.”

The system works for Adams and after years of conventional tillage, he's sold on minimum-till production.

He still runs into new problems.

Wet conditions last spring hampered planting. “But I got it all in and up to a good stand. I plant in the same rows every year. I'm learning as I go,” he says.

He sees too many advantages to change back to conventional tillage. “I believe it's cheaper,” he says.

e-mail: rsmith@primediabusiness.com