More than 40 area farmers attended the Conservation Strip Tillage workshop at the South Texas Implement of Alice recently. The workshop, which was the idea of Jerry Nock, Director of the Jim Wells County Soil and Water Conservation District #355. Nock felt there was a need for more information to get out to area farmers on the benefits of strip tillage. This workshop was developed by farmers for farmers.

Although the workshop was developed by farmers for farmers, an unique partnership of the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS); Jim Wells County Soil and Water Conservation District #355; Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service; South Texas Implement and Tractor City of Alice; Orthmann Manufacturing Inc., precision farming equipment; Helena Chemical of Robstown; and Monsanto Chemical Company also helped with the event. Three area farmers – Jerry Nock of Alice, Ernest Bippert, of Kingsville/Ricardo, and John Prukop, Prukop Farms of Premont, spoke about their experiences with strip tillage.

“This workshop was easy to help set up, arrange for speakers/partners, as it is, not often that we can get farmers willing to not only help direct the workshop, but also speak at the event – even private companies jumped at the chance to be there and speak to everyone,” said Bruce Healy, District Conservationist for Jim Wells County USDA-NRCS.

Healy explained that strip tillage is method of crop farming where the field is only tilled in a narrow strip (approximately 6 inches wide) into which the new crop seed is planted. The remaining field is undisturbed.

According to Dr. Josh McGinty, agronomist for AgriLife in Corpus Christi, improvement in soil health, and conservation of soil and water is a driving factor to look at strip tillage Soil health is improved by physical and structural changes such as improved pore space, improved water infiltration, an increase in soil carbon, improved organic matter, reduced soil compaction, reduced soil temperatures, and a rebuilding of soil aggregates. The reduced tillage also increases soil microbial activity while reducing soil moisture evaporative losses. The evaporative losses can be reduced up to 45 percent – which can potentially increase the crop yield up to 35 percent. McGinty cautioned that results will come over time – five to ten years is not uncommon – so don’t look to this as a quick fix. McGinty notes that special attention needs to be paid to the crop rotation to avoid an increase in herbicide or pesticide use.

Dr. Robert Bowling, also with AgriLife in Corpus Christi, pointed out that not all reduced tillage systems are the same – and a common term for reduced tillage is “trash farming.” Under trash farming, a blanket of plants or plant residues is retained on the soil surface to hold the soil against water and wind erosion. Reduced tillage systems are at a greater risk for a few insect pests, those are often minor, BUT the risks tend to be dependent on the timing of pre-plant herbicide applications.

Just as more harmful insects are attracted to reduced tillage systems – fire ants, big eyed bugs, sugarcane aphid, false chinch bug, three cornered alfalfa hopper, slugs (wet areas), etc. – beneficial insects – spiders and beetles among them – are also attracted to the same fields. Wildlife is also attracted to reduced tillage fields. Additional scouting is required with reduced tillage systems as there are often more winter annual weeds, and crop residue, for insects to be attracted to, on which to lay their eggs.

Bruce Henderson, NRCS Agronomist from Corpus Christi, told the audience that in South Texas, NRCS is starting to look at cover crops in new ways, and new timing of use, to protect from wind erosion, improve soil tilth, and increase the use of residual fertilizers – all if the timing is right. Henderson has been working with the E. Kika de la Garza Plant Materials Center in Kingsville, at determining what cover crops are adapted to South Texas, and which cover crops will work best for area crop rotations.

Henderson points out that the South Texas climate doesn’t lend itself well to cool season species, due to high heat and low soil moisture. Where we have cover, we have better soil moisture. Based upon some initial trials, if we have good soil moisture at harvest, we could plant cover crops right away. For warm season cover crops – look at planting in August; for cool season ones – look at planting in early October. With either crop, get them off the field in December – rather than right before planting and/or planting directly into them. This will help save the winter moisture, so critical to the next crop. Early trials have included buckwheat, black oats, turnips, tillage radish, chickling vetch, and sunn hemp. Sunn hemp should be shredded (as high as you can set the equipment) and then killed after regrowth.

Ernest Bippert started using reduced tillage in the early 1990s to save money and found it worked for him. He switched over to strip tillage in 2006, when he found the right equipment. Bippert has found he gets better yields, and has been able to reduce fertilizer inputs due to soil testing and deep placement. He has reduced his overall fertilizer needs by one-third to one-half of what he used with conventional tillage. Crop yields have been better with strip tillage, and his soil moisture and soil organic matter are increasing while his costs and time invested have decreased. Bippert estimates it costs him $15 to $17 per acre to run a 12-row strip tillage rig through his fields.

John Prukop started strip tillage about six years ago. Too many assets were tied up in equipment and he wanted to get away from the conventional tillage motto of “farming as many acres as possible to reduce equipment costs.” Also, he was tired of having his sandy soil blow across the road. He found that he doesn’t have to worry about wind erosion with his strip tilled fields. However, one has to watch for potential water erosion if farming up/down slope since an erosion problem may develop down your strip tillage row.

Prukop points out that strip tillage is a “no till cropping system to manage crop residues on most of the field.” Strip tillage equipment is heavier than conventional tillage equipment so someone probably needs about a tractor of about 30 hp per row and have a good tractor hitch. He suggested using precision farming equipment to take full advantage of strip tillage’s benefits.

One concern that Prukop told the group is when you farm up next to a large block of brush in South Texas these brush species will invade your strip tilled fields. So watch the brush closely and figure out what herbicides to use to control the brush and still be able to put in the desired crop rotations. Prukop indicates that it can take 3 to 4 years for you to get obvious results from strip tillage – so have patience.

Jerry Nock indicates that under conventional tillage, you are actually “planting” the annual weeds you going to have problems with. He sprays weeds right behind the planter and then waits until after grass emergence to get better results.

“With reduced tillage, over time you will reduce the annual weed pressure and end up dealing with perennials,” said Nock.

Dennis Neffendorf, agronomist with Orthmann, indicated that using the soil test method developed by Dr. Rick Haney at the Blackland Research Station, one will be able to tell the organic and inorganic potions of the soil test results apart from each other – in order to see how much is gained from residue management. Neffendorf pointed out that on high Calcium soils, there seems to be some benefit from putting out some sulfur within the strip. Also, some tests are ongoing to apply herbicide within the strip tillage area only, thus “managing the strip, not the whole field.”

Cleve Gustin, also with Orthmann, indicated that his company started looking at strip tillage in the early 1990s as a way to be more efficient in farming. One has to know your soils, being able to run equipment in the existing compaction layer to start breaking it up quicker. With fertilizer banding, start looking at about 40 percent applied shallow (about 4 inches) with the balance deeper (about 7 inches). Justin indicated that one can get by with a tractor of about 25 hp per row, in lighter soils – while heavier soils may require up to 35 hp per row. Plant ahead for the properly sized tractor.

Orthmann still has the 3-point hitch mounted strip tiller, but is coming out with a drag type of strip tiller with precision guidance and fertilizer application capabilities. One can also add nurse tank hitches to customize the strip tillage equipment exactly to your needs. It was pointed out that that Orthmann strip tillage equipment may be hard to adjust, but – when you get them right – they are hard to wear out.

J. D. Evans of South Texas Implement indicated that 19 strip till rigs have been sold locally and a lot of customers are starting to buy their second rig.

Lynn Angell, Monsanto, was on hand to update everyone on Roundup Ready Extend (with dicamba) and Bollgard II ExendFlex and other crop issues.

“You must scrutinize carefully any equipment purchased or leased from other areas or custom harvesters from other areas which come on our fields – if we are lax, then we could be opening ourselves up to a serious weed problem from ‘hitchhikers,’ said Angell. He indicated that it is important to monitor fields and get rid of the first weed flush – it can have a huge impact on the total year’s weed competition and overall crop yield.

Angell said farmers need to look at using the low-volatility chemical formulations to significantly reduce “off-target” drift. For example, the DGA dicamba has a significant reduction in volatility as compared to the original DMA dicamba. He encouraged everyone to look at very coarse to ultra-coarse nozzles to have a larger droplet size. Also, wind speed, tractor speed, and nozzle selection are of utmost importance when determining which nozzle to select as well as consider using more water to apply the herbicide not less.

As a caution, Angell encouraged the group to triple rinse all spray tanks after use, and especially between different products, to avoid applying residual chemicals in the tank to the next crop.

One attendee, C E May, May Farms of Bishop, indicated he has been strip tilling for several years now – and he has been able to reduce his overall equipment cost by 90 percent with the switch. These types of changes are important to learn about and get the word out to other folks concerned about soil health and soil conservation.

NRCS District Conservationist, Bruce Healy, provided an overview of the USDA’s 2014 Farm Bill along with NRCS Conservation Programs, including an explanation of the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and the Conservation Stewardship Program. NRCS is ready to assist rural land owners and operators on conservation issues affecting their operation. We can provide you with information on soil health and discuss alternatives for your operation will impact your soil health, soil erosion, or other concerns you have. Healy focused on cropland issues as this was a main topic of the meeting, but he pointed out that NRCS is also ready to help you with your soil health issues on rangeland or pastureland also. NRCS works hard to address your needs/concerns for your property and our assistance is tailored specifically to your operation.

Healy also covered the changes for USDA eligibility on the 2014 Farm Bill – it is your responsibility to make sure your records are up to date, not the USDA office staff. One major change for an entity is the need to obtain a Dun & Bradstreet Universal Numbering System (DUNS) identification number and to complete their registration with the US Government’s System for Award Management (SAM). The NRCS is actually ahead of the Farm Service Agency (FSA) in the SAM registration requirement, but they have indicated it is coming soon, so you may as well complete the process while you have time.

The DUNS number is a one-time process, while the SAM is an initial registration and an annual recertification. One note on SAM – is it not a quick process. There is a need to have ALL of your entity records handy when you go to register. Healy has heard of it taking 6 hours or longer. Please don’t wait until you want a contract or program payment to do this process!

Protecting from erosion while improving soil health is an active goal of the NRCS Conservation Programs. Healy also reminded everyone that NRCS provides general conservation assistance on soil health issues, with or without the additional financial assistance programs to anyone interested. Don’t be afraid to contact your local NRCS Office for help.