Wayne Waters figured out there had to be a better way to plant cotton and corn about 10 years ago. He was driving all over his Wharton County, Texas, farm trying to find a field dry enough to plant.

“My neighbor was working in dust,” he said during a presentation at the recent Cotton and Rice Conservation Tillage Conference in Houston. “I had applied fertilizer and plowed my fields. My neighbor, who had done nothing to his fields, was already planting. The next year, I tried stale seedbeds.”

He's still using them. “They work well for me,” he said, “but every farm is different and every year is different. It pays to be flexible.”

The first step, he said, is to check for a hardpan. “If soil is compacted, I suggest deep plowing before switching to stale seedbed planting.”

After taking care of any compaction problems, Waters says maintaining a continuous stale seedbed provides no problems.

“Good drainage and controlled traffic are important,” he said. “And every year my soil gets better, more mellow, very pliable. It holds moisture better. Corn, for instance, may go an extra ten days in dry weather before leaves start curling.

“Last year, we had some of the driest conditions I can remember, a dry winter and dry at planting. But I still had moisture at an inch-and-a-half down. I can just knock the top off the bed and find moist soil.”

He had some concern after the first year. “Yield dropped a bit and I thought I might have compaction problems. I checked and compaction was not the cause. The next year, I made the best yields ever. It was just a quirk of nature.”

Waters said stale seedbed planting offers more options than other planting strategies. “I can do a lot of things without having to buy more equipment,” he said.

He starts preparing the beds as soon as possible after harvest, applies Roundup to take out weeds and volunteer cotton or corn. He throws up rows with a hipper or lister.

“I don't need much more than a little crown, and I clean out the furrows and leave residue on top.”

He shreds and pulls cotton stalks, leaving some stubble about three to four inches tall. “Rainfall gets into the soil through the stalk openings.”

He said one year he made one pass with a Do-All after pulling the rows up and then did nothing else until he applied fertilizer. “Sometimes I fertilize and then run the Do-All. I prefer that.”

He uses vegetable knives, with shanks bent at a 45-degree angle to put fertilizer into the bed. “I place fertilizer about 5 inches from the center of the bed and I don't tear it up. The knives lift the soil and drop it back down. It leaves a very small track.”

He starts planting corn around Feb. 25. “I hope to get a rain to form a crust.”

Waters plants some fields no-till each year, “but I prefer the stale seedbed. It saves moisture, saves trips across the field, saves wear and tear on equipment, saves fuel, and saves labor.”

He also likes what the practice is doing for his soil.

“I have more earthworms, more moisture and fewer weeds,” he said. “But it's essential to keep the fields clean so all the moisture goes to the plant. And I have not seen a yield drag, compared to conventional tillage.”

He enjoys the flexibility the system offers. “I can fertilize just ahead or just behind the planter and I can plant earlier.”

He also likes the money he saves. Compared to conventional planting, Waters figures he saves about $20 per acre with corn following cotton in a stale seedbed, about $10 per acre with cotton following corn in a stale seedbed.

The following charts show where he saves money.

Conventional Tillage
Shred and Disk $ 8.50
Stalk puller 3.60
Plow 8.00
Hip 7.10
Plow 8.00
Hip 7.10
Hip and Fertilize 8.10
Hip 7.10
Do-All 3.80
Plant 9.00
Cultivate 6.00
Cultivate 6.00
Total per care $82.30
Stale Seedbed Following Cotton
Shred $ 6.50
Stalk Puller 3.60
Hip 7.10
Hip 7.10
Fertilize 4.00
Do-All 3.80
Burndown 14.00
Plant 9.00
Cultivate 6.00
Total per acre $61.10
Stale Seedbed Following Corn
Spray Roundup $14.00
Shred 6.50
Hip 7.10
Hip 7.10
Fertilize 4.00
Do-All 3.80
Burndown 14.00
Plant 9.00
Cultivate 6.00
Total per acre $71.50

Waters said of the three systems he's tried — conventional, stale seedbed, and no-till — conventional will be the most expensive and no-till the cheapest to produce. Still, he prefers the flexibility he gets with stale seedbed planting.

“Remember, the main advantages are: it saves time, it saves money and it gives you peace of mind.”

rsmith@primediabusiness.com