The Tucker brothers farm about 3,000 acres in Monroe County, Mississippi. Their farm’s soils are about 75 percent Blackland Prairie clays and the rest are sandy loams and silt loams of nearby Southern Coastal Plain origin. In 2006, they had 1,600 acres of cotton. This fell to about 700 acres in 2007. At the time of this case study, their cotton acreage was down to 150. Corn and soybeans have become the crops of choice. About 35 percent of the farm is in some type of conservation tillage that includes no-till. The Tuckers’ experience is that you cannot no-till forever. Some tillage is necessary to remake beds, to incorporate fertilizers and limestone, and to bury surface residue.
What do you consider to be the biggest challenges in farming Blackland Prairie soils?
Water is always a limiting factor, either too much or not enough. Wet soils are a particular problem when planting corn early. They can gum up planting equipment. We have solved this problem by eliminating a coulter, using trash wheels to remove residue from the old crop, using scrapers to remove soil on double-disk openers and using narrow dual press wheels. With cotton, getting good seed-soil contact can be a problem. If we plant shallow, the soil can dry out.
What conservation tillage techniques work best for you?
Corn is the easiest to no-till. Cotton does okay. Soybeans are the most difficult to no-till. We probably do more conservation tillage around here than anyone. Most folks plow bean and corn land every year. We plant using true no-till on old beds.
Cotton is normally planted no-till on beds behind corn. Everything is on 38-inch rows. We mow the corn stalks in the fall and plant on the bed in the spring. Once a bed is made, it can be used for several years before remaking it. Some of our land was hipped four years ago and has been no-till since then. When we do till, we apply fertilizer first.
We have to pick and choose where we use hippers to raise beds because of soil erosion. Where you need a bed, sometimes you cannot use it because of potential gully erosion problems in the middles. On rolling land, greater than 2 percent slope, with better drainage, we plant flat after a light do-all in the spring just to smooth the ground. A do-all is a generic name for a combination of different secondary tillage tools, including cultivators, harrows, disks and leveling devices . We have a lot of land that is terraced with tile outlets. The terraces have helped to improve crop yield and reduce soil erosion. We feel it was a necessary investment. This is the land we plant flat. The most tillage we do will be a spring chisel followed by a field cultivator and plant. In the fall we bush hog the stalks or use a flail shredder.
What are the biggest problems that you have encountered with conservation tillage techniques on Blackland Prairie soils?
We do not use cover crops. Cover crops work best when it is dry but they tend to keep the soil too wet in the spring.
What are the biggest advantages, if any, of conservation tillage on these soils?
Conservation tillage controls erosion, uses less horsepower and saves trips across the field.
What are the biggest problems with conventional tillage (moldboard plowing, disking, chiseling, etc.)?
Erosion! Another is timeliness. With conventional tillage you may not be able to get in the field when you need to; it is either too wet or too dry.
Do you use subsoiling under the row? Why or why not?
We have a paratill but haven’t used it in three or four years. We cannot hip or raise beds behind a paratill.
Do you have any other comments or ideas about conservation tillage on Blackland Prairie soils, or ideas for future research?
Controlled traffic is important in conservation tillage. All our equipment, including grain carts, can straddle four 38-inch rows.