Conservation Tillage Systems in the Southeast

Producer Experiences

Overview

The interviewed producers had various experiences. No-till did not look the same on every farm. For example, some found that residue amount and height were concerns, but Triple J Farm did not experience this. Some found they needed additional nitrogen during the first years of conservation tillage, but others did not.

There were common experiences. Producers from all seven farms experienced labor and fuel savings, and enhanced soil quality. They have all become concerned about herbicide-resistant weeds. Most producers learned at least some facts about no-till from No-Till Farmer magazine, no-till production symposiums and experiences of other producers.

Producer experiences are described below. First, their perspectives on two no-till myths are discussed. Then the experiences concerning the transition to no-till, changes to the farms’ natural resources, changes in agricultural production and specialty crops are reviewed. The producers give their perspective on why they changed to no-till production and discuss their vision for the future of no-till.

Myth No. 1: No-till is more difficult and requires more equipment adjustments than conventional tillage.

The Brocks, when comparing conventional tillage to no-till, listed the adjustments they had to make with conventional tillage. After listing the adjustments, they concluded that no-till did not require more adjustments, just different adjustments. They readily recalled about a dozen conventional tillage adjustments they had to make. Six are listed below:

  • adjustments in tillage methods for different soil conditions, weather and crops
  • adjustments to move dry dirt out of the way of the planter
  • adjustments to manage crusting of the clean-tilled soil
  • adjustments to the closing wheels on the planters
  • adjustments to ensure that the seed-to-soil contact was sufficient and that the seeds were covered
  • adjustments to reduce soil compaction

Myth No. 2: “No-till, No Yield.”

More recently, this myth has come to mean “no-till, no yield in the first years.” But, no producer interviewed reported significant yield losses even during the first years. The Davises and Brocks have observed that when the producer studies no-till before trying it, yield will not decline because of no-till. In fact, Triple J Farm experienced some modest gains in the first years, and no losses. Producers learn about no-till by talking with local no-till farmers and their advisors, and by reading No-Till Farmer magazine and other publications. In addition to learning about no-till before starting, producers had additional suggestions for preventing yield losses as described in the following sections.

Field Preparation and Planting

Prepare the field for proper seed placement and check the planting depth during planting. Paul Davis says that in Virginia, shallow seed placement of wheat could result in a 50 percent yield loss due to freezing. To prevent this, he smooths out field rills and ruts to make seed placement more uniform. If needed, he performs a last tillage incorporating lime and other soil amendments before the field is smoothed. Dargan and other producers state that when the soil is too rough, they do not get a good crop stand.

Check the residue for proper seed placement. Make sure the residue is uniformly distributed over the field after the field is smoothed. The Davises find that uniform residue depth keeps the seed-placement depth constant and thus removes one reason for yield loss. Kirk Brock rolls some residues to achieve a uniform depth. If residue builds excessively, producers either bush-hog or flail mow the field. Rawlins agrees that uniform distribution of residues is a key to good seed placement. Dargan and others say that cotton-seed placement is more critical than seed placement for other crops. Thus, residue-depth uniformity is very important for cotton planting. Triple J Farm does not have any problems with residue management since solving the concerns about residue flow around the subsoil shafts in their first year of no-till.

Scout the Field Often

Frequently check the no-till field for seed emergence. If seed emergence is too low and it is detected early, replant to reduce yield loss.

Scout for weeds early in the season. Consider using herbicide-resistant crops to make chemical actions more effective. Remember that over dependence on a specific herbicide can lead to herbicide resistance in weeds.

Check the crops frequently. All of the producers spent more time than usual in the field during the first year to monitor crop progress. It was a new system and they did not know how it would perform.

Equipment

Buy or rent good equipment and use it correctly. The Davises suggest purchasing equipment that adjusts easily and maintains the adjustments as it moves over the field. Good equipment, adjusted properly, results in seed placement at a uniform depth.

Rawlins points out that equipment that might be good for the Midwest may not be appropriate for the Southeast. For example, the rototiller used in the Midwest for strip-till did nothing to break up Georgia clay. Rawlins purchased a used Brown-Harden Super Seeder planter with in-row subsoilers for his strip-till operations.

Feed the Soil Ecosystem

To feed the soil ecosystem, some producers apply nitrogen, some plant high-residue crops, some plant cover crops and one uses a compost extract. During the first years, the increased amount of residue ties up nitrogen because there are too few soil organisms to process the residue. The Davises applied additional nitrogen fertilizer in the first years. Applying nitrogen and/or inoculating with compost extract hastens the growth and diversity of soil organisms. This transforms soil organic matter and releases nutrients.

Find a Mentor

Find a mentor with no-till experience. The mentor can be an agricultural Extension agent or a successful no-till producer. Talk with your mentor whenever there is a doubt or a question. “Don’t make the same mistakes that have already been made,” says Kirk Brock. According to William James, another reason to find a mentor is, “Nothing ever goes as smoothly as you hear.”

Download the tables from Chapter 18.

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