Conservation Tillage Systems in the Southeast

Changes in Agricultural Production

Overview

Changing from conventional tillage to no-till results in several changes in the crop production system. In this section, the producers’ observations concerning these changes are reviewed.

Decreased Fuel Consumption

Fuel consumption is less with no-till even though more fuel is used applying herbicides to kill weeds. Spraying uses less fuel than plowing or disking, says Paul Davis. The increased soil softness reduces the soil’s resistance to planting, thereby reducing the amount of fuel needed to plant.

Increased Flexibility

The reduced incidence of ponding enables producers to get into the field more frequently. As Paul Davis says, the producer is “not handcuffed to muddy soils.” For the Brock Farm, no-till builds firmer soils with less bogging, smoother fields and less bouncing of the equipment. Thus, no-till increases the flexibility in timing for both planting and harvesting operations.

Seed Germination

The residue from no-till keeps soils cooler longer. Some crops, such as cotton, need warmer soils to germinate. The softer soil from no-till makes seed germination rates higher, according to Rawlins.

Improved Plant Health

No-till soil holds more moisture than conventionally tilled soil. Increased soil moisture is especially beneficial during periods of drought.

The Davises, experiencing a significant drought in the past two years (2007–2008), observed that the neighbor’s conventionally tilled corn wilted seven days sooner than theirs. The Davis Farm yielded 25 percent more corn and 5–10 percent more soybeans in a dry year when compared with conventionally tilled fields.

Rawlins states that there is less disease because less soil and spores are splashed onto the plants. Winslow states that pests and diseases do not bother them anymore because the healthy soil biology has produced healthier crops. “Healthy plants resist bugs and disease,” he says. He also suggests that other organic producers have problems with bugs and disease because “they are organic by neglect.” He means that some organic producers removed the chemicals but have not actively managed the soil ecosystem.

The Brock Farm has not had a corn crop failure since moving to no-till. With conventional tillage, the Brock Farm experienced more variability in corn yield when compared with no-till and a cover crop. During years when corn yields are low, the no-till system has higher yields and is more profitable than the conventional system.

Improved Product Quality

Conservation tillage has improved the quality of the pumpkins grown on the Davis Farm and the watermelons grown on the Rawlins Farm. The pumpkins and watermelons are lying on straw instead of dirt. They have fewer “belly rot” spots as a result. Also, the fruit color is more uniform and the surface of the fruit is free of soil material.

Equipment

The Davis Farm made a few equipment changes. They traded the conventional grain drill for a Great Plains 10-foot No-Till Drill. “Ten foot” refers to the width of the implement. They attached a “chaff spreader” on the back of the combine to prevent residue piles from forming and to spread the residue evenly over the field.

The Brocks and other producers found that they use smaller tractors with conservation tillage. Conventional tillage requires more horsepower and diesel to break up the crusts and clods. The Brock Farm fabricated its own roller/crimper for killing cover crops because none meeting their specifications were available at that time.

All interviewed producers state that there is less equipment in use. The following characteristics reduce maintenance and operating costs. The tractors are used less frequently and can be smaller. The equipment stays cleaner because there is less dust and mud. Since there are fewer rills in the field, there is less equipment damage due to rills and ruts. Fuel costs decline because there are fewer field passes.

However, some maintenance costs increase. At the Davis Farm, no-till residue increases tire damage because the equipment operator cannot readily see deer antlers or other debris when it is covered by residue. Last year the Davis Farm experienced four flat tires. Previously, with bare soil, the operator saw the debris and picked it up.

Field Operations Costs

There are fewer maintenance costs for drainage ditches and waterways. The Rawlins Farm has terraces and the strip-till operations have significantly reduced terrace maintenance.

Pesticide Use

This includes herbicides, insecticides and fungicides. The residues tie up some of the pesticides by absorbing them, and they may harbor volunteer small-grain crops that need to be killed. The Davises suggest that very young volunteer plants may harbor insects that could pass to the next cash crop. Thus, pesticide use has increased on the Davis Farm. However, the producers in general did not experience an increase in plant pests. Grasshoppers were noted as a potential crop pest. However, belly rot on Rawlins’ watermelons and tomato spotted virus in Triple J Farm’s peanuts were reduced with no-till without an increase in the amount of pesticide applied. The Davis Farm did not experience an increase in wireworms or slugs, which have been a problem for no-till corn seedlings in cooler climates.

Labor

Most producers have observed reduced labor costs when comparing no-till with conventional tillage. In fact, labor savings was the major reason some of the producers changed to no-till. Labor savings are not just wages. Hiring labor requires transactional costs, meaning the costs of hiring and then managing the labor. For example, in the eastern part of Virginia, agricultural labor is mostly people who have retired from other careers. They need training and their mistakes must be corrected. Hired labor requires paperwork for citizenship and taxes. Lastly, labor is a management burden. Thus, having to hire fewer people means lower transaction costs as well as lower wage costs.

“Paying for helpers is like paying for a house,” says Rawlins. With no-till, Rawlins can significantly reduce his seasonal labor and accomplish more on the farm with existing, permanent labor. Because of the time saved with no-till, Rawlins operates a tree planting service, harvests more watermelons and spends less money on farm labor.

Paul Davis is able to work as a full-time county agricultural agent and still farm with his father without hiring temporary labor for the field crops. With no-till, the Davis Farm can use its hired labor budget for planting and harvesting higher-value crops such as pumpkins.

Triple J Farm says that no-till planting is slower than planting in conventional tillage: 4 miles per hour compared to 5–6 miles per hour. However, no-till still requires less time than conventional tillage overall. No-till has brought more flexibility to the whole farm because labor can move from one enterprise to another as needs change. On a multi-enterprise farm such as Triple J, no-till flexibility brings benefits to the whole farm operation.

The labor requirement has not changed on the Brock Farm, which always uses cover crops in its no-till operations.

Lime

Before no-till, the Davis Farm applied lime every three years. They now apply lime every four to five years.

Planting Dates

No-till on its own does not change planting dates. However, no-till with cover crops can result in a change in planting dates. The Davis Farm in Virginia must plant the cover crop soon enough before winter to get effective cover. Cover crop planting can force the producer to harvest the cash crop sooner. The use of cover crops and Bt corn varieties has allowed the Brock Farm to shift the planting date of corn later into the summer, which takes advantage of early summer rainfall. With a cover crop, more soil moisture is retained for the corn.

Mindset, Again

Because the producers have observed soil quality improvements, some are constantly looking for additional ways to improve soil quality. The mindset has changed from seeing soil as a medium that keeps plants erect and holds the applied fertilizers and amendments to seeing soil as an ecosystem that can automatically produce nutrients, water and minerals for plants. The changed mindset encourages producers to think of different production options. For example, the Brock Farm follows a controlled traffic pattern and does not run grain carts in the field. This minimizes soil compaction and supports a healthy soil ecosystem.

Download the tables from Chapter 18.

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