A 12-year study published in the July-September 2012 issue of the University of California’s California Agriculture journal demonstrates that cotton grown in rotation with tomatoes — using lower-impact conservation tillage — can achieve yields similar to standard cultivation methods and at lower cost.

Conservation tillage seeks to reduce the number of times that tractors cross the field, in order to protect the soil from erosion and compaction, and save time, fuel and labor costs. Cotton crops are planted directly into stubble from the previous crop in the rotation.

In the study, conducted from 2000 to 2011 at the UC West Side Research and Extension Center in Five Points (southwest of Fresno), the number of tractor passes for a cotton-tomato rotation grown with a cover crop was reduced from 20 in the standard treatment to 13 with conservation tillage.

By the final years of the in the San Joaquin Valley study, cotton lint yields were statistically equivalent and even higher (in 2011) than with standard cultivation methods.

“The UC studies have consistently shown that conservation tillage can yield as well as standard tillage in a cotton-tomato rotation,” lead author Jeffrey P. Mitchell, UC Cooperative Extension specialist in the Department of Plant Sciences at UC Davis, and co-authors wrote in California Agriculture journal.

Their study, “Conservation tillage systems for cotton advance in the San Joaquin Valley,” as well as the entire July-September 2012 issue of California Agriculture journal, can be viewed and downloaded online at: http://californiaagriculture.ucanr.edu.

Mitchell is a founder of Conservation Agriculture Systems Innovation (CASI), a diverse group of more than 1,800 farmers, industry representatives, UC and other university faculty, and members of the Natural Resources Conservation Service and other public agencies. CASI defines conservation tillage as a suite of cultivation practices — including no-tillage, minimum tillage, ridge tillage and strip tillage — that reduce the volume of soil disturbed and preserve crop residues in the field. Conservation tillage is common in other regions of the United States and parts of the world and is beginning to gain acceptance in California agriculture.

Technological upgrades to tillage implements have been critical to the advancement of conservation tillage systems. These include equipment that can target operations to just the plant row rather than the whole field as well as accomplish several operations at the same time.

Fuel use was reduced by 12 gallons and labor by 2 hours per acre in the conservation tillage plots. This amounted to savings of about $70 per acre in 2011 dollars.

Mitchell noted that more research is needed on the adequate development of cotton stands and the prevention of soil compaction under different conditions, but that the benefits of conservation tillage are becoming increasingly obvious. “Provided that yield performance or more importantly bottom-line profitability can be maintained and the risks associated with adopting a new tillage system are deemed reasonable, conservation tillage systems may become increasingly attractive to producers and more common in San Joaquin Valley cotton-growing areas.”