Buck Braswell walks through stalks left standing from last year's cotton crop, stopping occasionally to kick up remnants of grain sorghum stubble, residue from 2004. He stoops, digs his hands into the loose, grayish-black soil and sifts it through his fingers, like a miner, panning for gold nuggets.

No shiny stones turn up here but Braswell picks out bits and pieces of rich organic matter, decomposing and adding value to his South Texas fields.

He points to a tractor and bedding rig running across the far end of the field and explains how he's rowing up a bed, through last summer's cotton stalks, for next spring's grain sorghum crop. He says soil erosion will not be a significant problem in this field.

Braswell values soil and does all he can not only to conserve it but also to make it better than he finds it. Conservation makes sense. He contends that the better he maintains the soil the better cotton crop it will make. It makes economic sense as well, saving him trips across the field, allowing him to farm more acreage with fewer and smaller tractors, less expensive diesel fuel and fewer man hours.

And yields remain equal to or better than many farmers who continue to follow conventional tillage methods.

Braswell's dedication to conservation, along with his unselfish willingness to help other growers learn about and adopt conservation practices, earned him the 2006 Farm Press High Cotton Award for the Southwest.

He made his first reduced-tillage crop in the Lower Rio Grande Valley in 1992. He had done some conservation-tillage in Mississippi before moving to Texas. “Yield on that first con-till crop was just as good as conventional,” he says.

He's refined the system since and follows the same basic procedures in both cotton and grain sorghum.

“We're producing crops as good as anyone around us,” he says.

Braswell plants cotton in grain sorghum stubble and grain sorghum in cotton stalks.

“We never pull stalks,” he says. “It's important to leave those stalks.”

He says, in addition to adding organic matter to the soil, stalks and root systems keep channels open for water to penetrate and for the next crop to follow to moisture.

“I always follow the same rows, every year. Controlled traffic is a key for conservation-tillage.”

Braswell follows a fairly simple procedure. He uses a John Deere Max Emerge planter. “I just add a disk on the front to move dry soil,” he says. “I put out seed, no insecticide hoppers, no herbicide tanks. I just plant. And I use bulk seed, so we don't have to lift bags anymore.”

Braswell doesn't use a total no-till system. “I put up a little row,” he says, “and use the same ones every year.”

He likes to “bed up the land” in the fall, after September rains. “I don't want to bed up too early, because all rain water will run off when the middles are clean of debris,” he says. “I leave the stubble in the beds to hold that moisture and will put up beds in October. Then I hope we get rains before planting to replenish moisture.”

He manages residual stalks with a Prep Master before planting. “I kill cotton stalks just after harvest with 2,4-D to prevent boll weevils from reproducing late in the year. I may hit it three times. I get checked a lot on stalk destruction, but this system works better than mechanical destruction. Often I can't find any (stalks) alive after spraying. I can get near 100 percent stalk destruction by spraying. I can't do that well when pulling stalks.”

He says growers have to be meticulous about spraying to assure proper coverage.

He runs the Prep Master over grain sorghum stubble, too, usually a week before planting.

“I have no trouble getting a stand with minimal-till cotton,” Braswell says. “That was a concern back in the early 1990s but since 1995 and 1996, we've gotten excellent stands. But we will do whatever it takes to get a cotton stand. We only get that one shot at it, so we make certain we get it up. I rarely have to replant.”

Weed control has posed few problems either. He uses all Roundup Ready varieties and will apply Prowl pre-emergence only to irrigated acreage. “I may use some Diuron in a rainy summer.

“I'll plant as many Roundup Flex, stacked varieties as I can get in 2006,” he says. “Roundup Ready has made a big difference in farmers' acceptance of reduced-tillage systems.”

He expects Roundup Flex, with a broader application window, will be even more useful in reduced-tillage systems.

The current system has worked well. “I have no serious weed problems but I realize that Roundup is not good on some weeds and I could run into some trouble down the road.”

He uses a hooded sprayer to take care of in-season weeds.

He's careful with spray application, for either weed or insect pests.

“Spray drift can cause a lot of damage and ill will,” he says. “But we can spray without drift if we do it right. We have to be aware of the wind.”

He uses a high cycle and a hooded spryer for spraying insecticides and herbicides. He is careful with either.

“We have to be mindful of people's property,” he says. “Folks spend a lot of money on their yards and they don't want their plants damaged. If we're careful, we can draw a fine line with a sprayer and keep drift from being a problem.”

Cultivation plays no part in his weed management system.

“I own no disks or field cultivators,” he says.

He recently took in a 500-acre farm and had to run a chisel plow to get it ready to plant. “Even when I chisel, I leave residue on the surface,” he says. That residue is important in the Valley. “We get a lot of wind erosion down here,” he says.

Rotation keeps yields up. “We simply can't plant cotton after cotton here,” he says. “Cotton yields will drop by half if we don't rotate.”

He says milo responds to reduced-tillage even better than cotton. “Yield improvement seems better with the grain,” he says.

Braswell says current high energy prices may encourage other Rio Grande Valley farmers to cut back on tillage. “We're saving a lot of diesel fuel with minimal-tillage,” he says. “I haven't bought diesel since mid-season,” he said in mid-October. “My neighbors are buying it every week. And at $2.23 a gallon, it's a big expense.”

Steel price jumps also add up. “Steel cost is a big issue for a farmer,” he says. “Sweeps are up 40 percent since last year, but we only put up that little row so we only use a sweep once a year.”

He figures equipment lasts 30 percent to 40 percent longer because of reduced-tillage. “I don't go to the shop for repairs nearly as often as I used to. We spend very little money on equipment repair.

“We use less equipment, probably 60 percent to 70 percent less than we did with conventional-tillage. And we use smaller equipment. We just don't need the high horsepower.”

In addition to fuel, soil, labor and equipment savings, Braswell believes his nutrient program works better. He's participated in a variable rate fertility program and says his soils show more uniform nutrient distribution than conventionally-tilled fields. “Also, I have higher organic matter content.”

He says the organic matter provides a “distinct difference during drought. At planting time I see an obvious difference in the amount of planting moisture available. That's an established fact.”

In addition to his minimum-till conservation program Braswell also keeps soil out of the Arroyo Colorado River that runs by one of his fields. He's built a buffer between the field and the river, built low berms to divert water away from the river and is planting grass to help hold the soil.

He thinks precision farming will be the next step in improving farm efficiency. Global Positioning System (GPS) agriculture “is the way to go,” he says. ‘I intend to work on it in the next few years. It will improve farming. The technology is amazing and will allow us to be more accurate with spraying, planting and the other practices we do on a farm. We will be able to apply chemicals with GPS and save $4 to $5 an acre because of improved accuracy. We will save on seed, too.

“Every application on the farm, within five years, will be adaptable to GPS. A lot of us said we would never use a computer to farm. Now, we all have them. It will be the same with GPS.”

Buck Braswell drives the back roads of Willacy County, showing us the bare autumn landscape where the country's earliest cotton crop was harvested back in mid-summer. He points out fields with cotton stalks still standing and tells how one farmer or another recently switched to conservation-tillage. He's pleased at how much better these farmers like the system than what they had done before, many for decades.

He doesn't say so, but other observers contend that Braswell may have played a key role in encouraging the change. Calling him an evangelist for no-till may be a bit over the top but it somehow seems appropriate. He's not a pushy type, but given the opportunity to talk about what conservation-tillage will do, he's more than willing to share what he knows.

e-mail: rsmith@primediabusiness.com