The current movement toward conservation tillage seems to fit right in with two other farming industry trends--pinching pennies and protecting the environment.

“Conservation tillage is any cropland system that leaves at least one-third of the soil covered with crop residue after planting,” according to the Conservation Technology Information Center in West Lafayette, Ind.

The two primary types of conservation tillage are no-till and strip-till, also called zone-till, says Jeff Mitchell, cooperative Extension cropping systems specialist at the Westside Research and Extension Center in Five Points, Calif.

With the no-till method, growers do no tilling from the time they pick one crop until they plant or transplant the next crop into the unworked soil.

With the strip- or zone-till method, growers typically clear an 8- to 12-inch strip of soil and loosen the dirt to a depth of 2 to 14 inches before planting.

Conservation tillage helps reduce labor, fuel and equipment costs compared with conventional tilling, where farmers till their entire fields, he says.

Other growers practice reduced till—a broader term defined by Cornell University’s horticulture department as “a method of tillage in which the soil has been disturbed to a lesser extent relative to the conventional tillage.”

That reduction can be achieved by making fewer passes with tillage equipment or by tilling less land.

From an environmental standpoint, the less tilling you do, the less soil is disturbed and less dust is generated, Mitchell says. Some growers say the quality of the soil is enhanced, and there is less need to irrigate.

Many uses

In California, some form of conservation tillage is used for 20 percent of dairy silage production, Mitchell says. The practice is even more prevalent in the Midwest.

A rising number of California processing-tomato growers and some fresh-market tomato growers also use a form of minimum tillage, often to avoid damaging drip irrigation tape, Mitchell says.

A handful, including ranch manager Jesse Sanchez at R.A. Sano Farms Inc. in Firebaugh, Calif., go a step further. Sanchez introduced strip-tillage for the company’s fresh and processed tomatoes about six years ago, and he’s glad he did.

“I’ll never go back to conventional,” he says.

He saves 50 percent on groundwork alone compared with conventional tillage and says the soil has become more workable, water penetration is better, the soil responds better to fertilizers and he uses the tractor less.

In Le Roy, N.Y., Donn Branton, owner of Branton Farms, says he saves time and money and does a better job producing his 1,300 acres of corn, peas, dry beans and other commodities since he switched to reduced-tillage production in 1996.

Although he had to buy $12,000 worth of attachments for his 12-row planter when he switched from conventional tillage, his cost savings have been significant.

Branton has cut his fuel use in half and reduced labor from three full-time workers and one part-timer to two full-time workers and a part-timer.

Yields increased more than 20 percent for some commodities, and the quality of the soil improved because the earthworm population increased.

However, there was an increase in weeds, especially perennials such as milkweed and dandelions, because reduced tillage creates a favorable growth habitat, he says.

To fight the weeds, Branton found that applying herbicides in the fall when the plant nutrients are moving into the roots is more effective than in the spring when they are moving from the roots into the leaves.

Rocks also can be more of a challenge, since the equipment tends to pull up more of them.

No-till advocate

Although many growers use a zone-till process, no-till farming also has its advocates.

Steve Groff, owner of Cedar Meadow Farm in Holtwood, Penn., grows about 100 acres of fresh-market pumpkins, tomatoes, sweet corn and about 100 acres of cover crop for seed productions and small grains.

He uses what he calls the permanent cover cropping system—a method of farming that relies heavily on cover crops, crop rotation and no-till.

Vegetables and crops are seeded or transplanted into the organic mulch.

The permanent cover helps control weeds and has all but eliminated soil erosion, Groff says. Some of his fields haven’t been touched by tillage equipment for more than 30 years.

No-till doesn’t work with all vegetables, he says. Onions and potatoes, for example, need a certain amount of tillage just to harvest them.

Anusuya Rangarajan, senior Extension associate at Cornell University, says zone tillage is the primary conservation tillage method used in the Northeast because of the cool weather, which results in cooler soil.

“In zone tillage, we’re only disturbing about an 8-inch band of soil across the field,” she says.

Rangarajan recommends starting off with deep zone tillage, using a narrow shank to reach just below any compacted layer. Based on a penetrometer, that’s typically 8 to 12 inches, depending on soil type. Eventually, growers can transition to shallow tillage of 3 to 4 inches using a set of coulters

Zone tillage enables growers to prepare the planting area for a crop in one pass, she says. By making a single pass, growers conserve fuel and time and enhance soil quality because they’re not inverting the soil.

Expansion mode

So far, the vast majority of conservation tillage is used with row crops, such as corn, soybeans, cotton and wheat, but that eventually may change, says Karen Scanlon, executive director of the Conservation Technology Information Center.

“The formula for no-till to work for corn and soybeans is not the same formula to get it to work in vegetables,” she says.

But she says growers such as Groff are proving that it may work with commercial vegetables, as well.

“There is no magic recipe,” Scanlon says. “You have to be able to investigate what works for your soil, vegetation and the inputs that you use.”

Minimum tillage can be used with commercial crops, such as tomatoes and other vegetables, says Jim Marois, professor of plant pathology at the University of Florida’s North Florida Research & Education Center in Quincy.

“But you have to lower your yield expectations,” he says.

Still, your rate of return may be greater, because you’re reducing your inputs.

Researchers at Cornell already have used reduced tillage with several large-seeded crops, including sweet corn, beans and pumpkins, Rangarajan says. They also are exploring transplanted crops, such as tomatoes, peppers and cabbage.

In the future, she says she hopes to be able to use the process with root crops and smaller-seeded crops.

If at first you don’t succeed with minimum tillage, don’t be discouraged, Marois advises.

Many growers who stuck with the program, even though they didn’t see immediate results, are glad they did and will never go back to conventional tillage, he says. Some growers have been using the method for 30 years.

“It is a learning process,” he says.

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