It is the “till” in conservation tillage motivating California and Arizona farmers to seriously look for the first time at the decades-old practice of conservation tillage.

It is not the “till” as in tilling the soil that has arid West producers looking at no-till, minimum till, incomplete till, strip till, ridge till and the several more tills that have long been practiced in rain-farmed areas of the U.S.

It is the “till” as in where money goes and where money comes out.

The dollar bill and the dwindling supply thereof is the driving force behind perhaps the first widespread, serious attempt at making conservation tillage work in the Far West.

Purists have run the notion of conservation tillage — defined as leaving at least 30 percent of the soils covered with residue — up the flagpole before in the West only to see it hang limp from a lack of interest.

No questions, Western growers have been gradually reducing passes with tillage implements for at least a couple of decades to save money. However, there has been little interest in living with some residue from reduced tillage and permanent beds, two of the more notable criteria for conservation tillage.

Experts acknowledge there is cost savings associated with conservation tillage, but conservation tillage is most about the reducing wind and storm erosion, neither of which is big issues in the arid West.

Improvement in soil tilth has been significant plus for a handful of San Joaquin Valley innovative producers who discussed the challenges of introducing conservation to their farms at a Conservation Tillage Farm Tour/Conference recently sponsored by the University of California Cooperative Extension/USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Conservation Tillage Workgroup.

However, the quest to reduce costs came through loud and clear as the chief motivator for trying to make conservation tillage work.

Impressive savings

The savings are impressive. For one farm, conservation tillage farming methods have reduced diesel use by 50,000 gallons a season for the past two years compared to previous years of conventional tillage. For another it has saved $150 per acre in tillage costs.

Scott Schmidt, general manager of Farming D, a diversified 8,500-acre farm at Five Points, Calif., said it was the installation of drip irrigation on processing tomato fields that actually began the evolution of conservation tillage at the Diener Family operation where there are 4,000 acres of cotton and 2,000 acres of tomatoes along with 300 acres of almonds, 600 acres of grapes and smaller acreages of lettuce, triticale, wheat and corn.

Drip irrigating row crops dramatically changes farming practices because the permanently installed drip precludes deep or extensive cultivation and requires a farmer to leave permanent beds.

Howard Wuertz of Coolidge, Ariz., pioneered drip irrigated row crops in the West more than two decades ago. He quickly discovered that conventional tillage would not work on drip and he developed and commercialized a tillage system called Sundance, the name of his Pinal County farm.

Farming D is one of hundreds of farmers who have gone to what Schmidt calls “the Sundance bar” to farm drip irrigated row crops as well as conventionally irrigated crops. The system is basically a multitude of specially designed Sundance tillage tools like small gangs of offset disks, shanks and small shovels to minimally cultivate permanent farming beds. They are all hung from large, heavy multi-row tool bars.

Schmidt and Farming D production manager Jonathan Avila quickly recognized as others have that the Sundance system offered potential on conventionally irrigated fields. One pass with a Sundance system on permanent 66-inch drip-irrigated beds replaced five or more conventional tillage passes. Schmidt and Avila say no reason why it would not work on conventionally irrigated crops.

Beds look mulched

Farming D bought the Sundance system in 1999 and now uses it on all their row crops except for lettuce production. Avila said Farming D has not run a mulcher on tomato beds in three years. “When we finished with the Sundance bar, the beds look like they have been mulched.”

The conservation tillage system has “dramatically improved soil tilth. It is garden like,” said Schmidt. Part of the reason is reduced compaction because permanent traffic patterns are created with permanent beds. This relegates compaction issues to specific furrows where shanks are added to the tool bar to alleviate it.

However, Schmidt and Avila admit it has not been an easy transition. One of the biggest issues with conservation tillage in the arid West is crop residue, particularly cotton stalks. In the Midwest and other areas, residue is weathered away.

Avila said initially cotton stalks plugged furrows until an implement was added to the Sundance bar to “flip” the stalks atop the permanent beds where a tandem disk like implement incorporates them.

Several different tool bars were built in the Farming D shop before the ideal one was developed. Some were too heavy; others were too light and they twisted under the heavy load.

Speed is important, said Avila. “The Sundance bar likes speed — five to seven miles per hour — to get good soil mixing.”

“You have to focus your effort to make conservation tillage work. Don't give up,” said Schmidt.

Use two tractors

Four years ago Farming D kept 4 steel track crawlers and one rubber track Challenge busy with tillage work. Today the same work those six tractors were called up on to perform are now done by a pair of rubber track Deere 8400T tractors towing the Sundance bar. “We do 7,600 acres in two passes with two tractors,” citing the obvious savings in labor and equipment wear and tear.

“We used to use about 300,000 gallons of diesel before going to the system. Our diesel use has dropped 50,000 gallons the past two season,” Schmidt said. “I'm using less and paying more,” he quipped about the rising cost of diesel. He knows he could be paying more — and using more without conservation tillage.

“Everything changes when you go to conservation tillage,” said Kerman, Calif., producer Jim Couto.

Couto farms about 1,000 acres of cotton, alfalfa, wheat, corn and grapes. He has been working to develop single pass intercrop soil prep implements.

He has modified a bent-leg Terratill strip-till machine made by Bingham Brothers, Lubbock, Texas, by adding a cotton root undercutter blade to it as well as a pull behind tool bar that runs tires down each furrow to effectively recreate a plantable bed.

Couto said conservation tillage requires more field fall than conventional tillage of repeated diskings and land planing. He says one-tenth of fall per 100 is the minimum to get water across a field. Less fall than that will not work because irrigation water subs so much better with residue in the soil that it takes forever to irrigate.

He is more than willing to re-level the ground because of the difference one pass tillage has made in his ground. Conservation tillage has proven “we worked the ground too much before. We turned it to talc and it would not sub. By leaving the trash in the field, the soil takes more water.”

It took longer to irrigate across the farm, but more moisture is getting into the root zone. “The ground does not seal up like it used to,” he said.

Each farmer on the CT tour said the implements used for reduced pass conservation tillage are expensive and heavy. To pull his Bingham conservation rig, Couto said it takes a 225-horsepower four wheel drive tractor to cross a field at 5.6 miles per hour.

“And this stuff is not cheap,” he added. “But it saves fuel and man hours and all the cost associated now with labor.

Technology factors

Finally, Couto said conservation tillage has become a viable option for him as an irrigated producer in the West also because of herbicide resistant cotton. “Conservation tillage would not work for us without Roundup Ready technology,” said Couto. GPS technology also has made a difference as well in this conservation tillage, permanent bed farming for Couto and Farming D.

Wilcox Agri-Products reduced tillage implements are what Alan Sano used to used to develop his conservation tillage system on his farm near Firebaugh where he has about 1,200 acres of cotton; 2,250 acres of processing tomatoes and 640 acres of almonds.

Stagnant processing tomato prices for the past three years were the primary motivation for Sano to develop conservation tillage and also use drip irrigation.

A cover crop is a cornerstone of conservation tillage in rain farmed areas, but with the rising cost of water in the West, cover crops have not been widely used.

Sano is the exception. “We planted cover crops on six tomato fields this year,” said Sano, whose foreman Jesse Sanchez has been recommending cover crops for several years. It made such a difference in yields and improved soil tilth, Sano said he will be 100 percent winter cover crops next season. “The difference in fields where we had a cover crop and where we did not was as different as night and day,” said Sano.

The 60-inch tomato beds were pre-irrigated seeded in the winter to rye and triticale. He used the more expensive triticale because it has a larger root mass than barley. Sano used Roundup to take out the cover crop before planting tomatoes. His concerns about crop residue at planting proved unfounded.

Using the Wilcox Optimizer has reduced tillage costs by 60 percent, said Sano. He works beds with the Wilcox Performer.

100 percent tomato transplants

“This year we also went to 100 percent transplants for tomatoes where before we seeded. That made a big difference. We have also installed drip irrigation. Farming D has been very helpful to us in learning how to use drip,” Sano said.

Residue is an issue with processing tomatoes as well. Sano adapted a shredder to run behind processing tomato harvesters to chop up the vines.

Herbicide is incorporated on the tomato beds. For the furrows, Sano uses a weed wipe to control the weeds with glyphosate.

Western producers have been able to put more money into the till than they take out in costs for years with conventional farming and increasingly higher yields. However, high yields have been overrun by staggering cost increases and in many cases little growth in crop prices. While the benefits to the soil with conservation tillage cannot be overstated, it is the reductions in costs available through conservation tillage that is driving a technology embraced for years in the Midwest and other areas into the arid West.

e-mail: hcline@primediabusiness.com