At the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Field Crops Tour, Dr. Gaylon Morgan discussed the benefits and drawbacks of no-till and conservation tillage management versus conventional farming methods.

While No-Till farming is easy to describe, there is no set parameters to define conservation tillage. Many producers consider anything less than their conventional tilling practices to be conservation.

Morgan told the producers that Dr. Frank Hons, soil scientist and retired Texas A&M University professor, conducted a long-term tillage study where conservation tillage was considered a reduction of eight passes to four.  This reduction in tillage equated to higher yields in cotton and sorghum.

“Any reduction to the number of passes you make is beneficial for saving soil moisture,” Morgan stated. “There is about one-half inch of water loss for every tillage pass across the field.”

According to USDA reports cited by Morgan, Texas lags behind in the adoption of conservation tillage, especially no-till. Approximately 70 percent of crop land in the southeast is under strip till or no till, while Texas is only 30 percent.

“Herbicide tolerant crops now allow us to use less tillage,” Morgan explained. “Herbicides provide a viable option for managing weeds without tillage. Conservation tillage, no-till in particular, is not as straight forward as conventional tillage, but it can save $4 to $12 dollars per acre.”

Morgan explained that there are many benefits to conservation tillage including lower overhead/equipment costs; lower labor costs; water savings; and an improvement to the quality of the soil. Under reduced tillage, the soil can hold more moisture, which leads to yield stability.

“One of the benefits that producers frequently mention is an improved quality of life,” Morgan said. “They are spending less time on the tractor and have more time to spend with family or other interests.”

Switching to more sustainable practices can also open up marketing opportunities, Morgan stated, as there are companies who commit to purchasing a certain percentage of their products from “sustainable” production operations.

On the down side, the soil benefits of changing to a conservation tillage program are often not realized for four to seven years as changes to the soil take time. Producers have to be flexible and able to adapt to the challenges of getting a good stand.

“You must start with the right equipment and adjust your equipment to the field conditions. You need to find a different way to fertilize to get the nutrients down into the soil where they are more accessible to the plants’ roots,” Morgan explained. “And you must have a good spray rig because all your weed control will be done by spraying.”

Morgan stressed that producers switching to reduced tillage must have the right frame of mind and be prepared to adapt to their field situations.

Once established, strip till or no-till management can produce yields that are generally more stable, comparable to conventional tillage and possibly even higher. He pointed out that Dr. Hon’s research reported a ten to fifteen percent yield benefit just by reducing from eight to four passes across the field.

“I have more of an occasional-till style,” Morgan said. “Once in a while you have to put a disc in the field to deal with eroded areas or to decrease compaction in the controlled traffic lanes, especially after the wet springs that have occurred the past two years.”