Conservation tillage is catching on in California for one basic reason – it reduces passes across fields. In today’s economy, anything that lowers costs is as welcome as the Publishers Clearing House man on your front porch.

Topper van Loben Sels, who farms 3,000 acres in the North San Joaquin Delta near Walnut Grove, Calif., started small on the road to conservation tillage, but now practices it farm-wide on his corn to benefit all his row crops.

“You can’t just jump into conservation tillage,” says Loben Sels, who grows wine grapes, pears, corn, wheat, tomatoes, safflower, alfalfa, and a few small seed crop plots. “You have to figure out how and why it works. No-till didn’t work for us because it was too labor intensive.

“By moving to conservation tillage, we got to the point where we could manage all of our fields more uniformly across the board without having to call every shot every day on every field. Conservation tillage has definitely simplified the management process.”

It has also reduced dust, diesel cost and weeds, according to Loben Sels. “We couldn’t have done this without the Roundup Ready varieties,” he says. “We’ve eliminated eight passes through the field because of it. It cleaned up the Johnsongrass which used to be a horrible problem for us. Conservation tillage helped us get a handle on our costs when costs are spiraling out of control.”

Technology is one thing. Selecting varieties is another, and for 42 years he has run his own on-farm variety trials.

“Everything changes,” he says. “And it changes rapidly. We like to average about 500 acres of corn annually. Varieties perform differently on different soils in different microclimates. If you’re going to be serious about the corn business, you need to have trials on your own ground.”

Some of the corn is continuous while other acreage is rotated.

“Generally, the difference is in drainage and soil types,” he says. “In continuous corn, we’re moving away from the sediment soils into the organic soils that have a little higher water table. In some years we’re planting corn a little bit later there than we would like to plant a tomato crop for example. But those soils lend themselves very well to corn.”

Loben Sels started out experimenting with 19 acres of no-till several years ago — saw the potential, and ultimately converted all of his acreage to conservation-tillage. “We used to make about 10 passes through the field,” he says. “Now, we’re getting by with two.”

Loben Sels applies sidedress fertilizer in the minimum till corn after it is established. “We’ve done a lot of experimentation with nutrients,” he says. “We’re using UN-32 now after a starter fertilizer that goes down at planting. We soil sample fields until we get a feeling for the profile and get an understanding of what it’s going to take to maintain that field. If we see a problem area after that, we’ll go to that area and take additional samples to see what we need to change.”

Corn is a critical part of the northern San Joaquin Valley rotation.

“A lot of crops are contracted, but you need rotational crops for other options such as tomatoes,” he says. “Corn puts a lot of organic matter back into the soil. We’ve got the right equipment and storage facilities. Our water is relatively inexpensive and we’re efficient with it. My applied water here is probably about 50 percent of what a grower might use around an area like Bakersfield. We get very good winter rains, so we start out at field capacity. Corn roots here can get into the water table, whereas growers down south don’t have that luxury.”

Where tomatoes were once used to clean up weeds in a field, Loben Sels now uses glyphosate on Roundup Ready corn varieties. “Now we’ve got something we can use to clean up Johnsongrass,” he says. “We can actually use a cornfield to clean up a field for other crops.”

Loben Sels has made subtle changes converting to con-till and cautions there are significant challenges.

“Because you haven’t prepped that seedbed like a conventional seedbed, you have to be aware that a lot of other factors come into play,” he says. “One thing is that the ground is rough with reduced tillage. We put a tiny bit more seed out there a little closer together to maintain the 30,000 to 32,000 plant population we wanted at harvest.

“When we switched to Roundup Ready and con-till, we didn’t have to put down any preplant herbicides,” he says.

As fertilizer prices have tripled and diesel is now well over $4 a gallon, it takes a sharp pencil to make corn work economically. “If we weren’t doing con-tillage, we wouldn’t be growing corn now,” Loben Sels says. “The costs of inputs have gone up exponentially, so being able to cut our costs with the Roundup Ready technology has helped immensely.

“Conservation tillage is also a very worker-friendly regime and great for wildlife. The stubble is there all winter for sandhill crane, geese and ducks.”

Loben Sels is an avid supporter of the North Delta Conservancy.

“We have three local projects. One is a wood duck project, where we’re maintaining 325 wood duck boxes in the riparian habitat. We’ve probably had about 12,000 hatchlings, and the hens are starting to return to the same boxes.”

The North Delta Conservancy is also responsible for overseeing a mallard egg rescue program. “If we’re out harvesting an alfalfa field and a hen busts out, the operator will stop, take the hen, the bedding and the eggs, and put them in a paper bag,” he says. “Then they go to our incubation facility.

“As soon as those ducks are what they call ‘floppers’, (they can’t quite fly, but they can run on water) they’re banded and released back into their natural habitat. They mix right back into the Pacific flyway.”

The conservancy also helps re-establishing wetlands, Loben Sels says. “We go to a marginal piece of property and ask the landowner if they would like to improve it. A lot of times the landowner would like to work with us rather than the government, so that’s another win-win situation.”