For years farmers scoffed at the idea of growing peanuts with anything less than a full-bore tillage system, including a trip with a moldboard plow, several diskings and frequent treks up and down the rows with cultivators to eliminate weeds and to freshen the soil.

Their thinking was that deep plowing was necessary to bury old crop residue and any insects, weed seed or disease that could use organic matter as habitat until another crop came along.

Disking smoothed out the fields so farmers could throw up beds easily and cultivation kept the crop free of weeds until peanuts developed a canopy that shaded them out.

The idea of leaving crop debris on top of the ground and actually planting into it was near sacrilege.

It's an idea that's taking hold, though slowly, across the peanut belt.

“For the most part, our farmers are still clean-tilling,” says Todd Baughman, Texas Extension agronomist at Vernon, “but we find a lot of differing opinions about what constitutes conservation-tillage.”

He says few peanut farmers have switched to a cover crop system, in which they plant into old-crop residue or stubble.

“But they may not be doing a lot of moldboard plowing, either.”

Baughman says West Texas peanut farmers may have some advantages over producers in the Southeast who worry about heavy soils and reduced-tillage systems. “Some farmers in the Carolinas and Georgia have tight soils that may pose harvest difficulties in reduced-tillage systems,” he says. “Most of the West Texas soils are sandier, so that's not as big a concern.”

Baughman says more farmers are likely to begin looking at reduced-tillage systems as they try to cut production expenses and conserve moisture. He's seen growers work a modified-conservation-tillage system as part of a three-crop rotation.

“They'll plant one-third of a pivot in cotton, one-third in wheat and one-third in peanuts. Cotton usually follows wheat, planted in the stubble as protection against blowing sand in the spring.”

He says peanuts follow cotton and can be planted into the cotton stalks or growers can clean till and start over.

“I think farmers who have used stubble planting and reduced-tillage systems in cotton will begin testing the system on peanuts as they add them to rotation,” Baughman says.

“I've seen a few farmers in several areas experiment with planting peanuts in a cover crop. Most have been pleased, especially in windy springs where blowing sand can cause severe injury to seedlings.”

Baughman says conservation-tillage likely will take off first in West Texas, where farmers often fight blowing sand just after planting.

David Jordan, A North Carolina State University Extension agronomist, discussed reduced-tillage in peanuts at the Cotton and Rice Conservation Tillage Conference held in Houston.

He said North Carolina farmers plant mostly Virginia-type peanuts, which are bigger than runner-types and inherently more difficult to dig. Conservation-tillage may exacerbate the problem, especially in dry autumns.

“Peanut farmers remain cautious about tillage systems,” Jordan says, “but they have several choices and compromises between straight no-till and traditional clean-tillage.

“No-till, strip-till and stale-seedbed offer alternatives to traditional methods. In strip-till, growers prepare a narrow band for planting. That helps with stand establishment.”

He says the stale seedbed may be a good compromise between conventional and no-till.

“Growers need to produce peanuts on a bed. That makes them easier to dig,” he says.

“With no-till or strip-till, if they get a dry fall, they lose a lot of peanuts at digging.

“We still see reluctance to try no-till peanuts. Southeast growers are planting only 15 percent to 20 percent of their peanut acreage in reduced-tillage systems, although moldboard plow use has dropped significantly. Field cultivation also is dropping. But 100 percent or close to it, bed or rip and bed peanut land.”

Jordan said farmers could use a stale seedbed system and get the advantages of planting on a bed with significantly less tillage. “They throw up a bed in the fall, in cotton or corn rows, and then strip-till peanuts in the spring.”

Costs, he says, are significantly lower with the stale seedbed. “To disk, moldboard plow, field cultivate, and bed farmers will spend about $43 per acre,” he says. “Preparing a stale seedbed and strip-tilling into stubble costs about $10 per acre. They still have to add back additional herbicide costs,” he says.

Reduced tillage will cost some yield. Jordan says conventional-tillage has produced consistently higher yields, about 165 pounds per acre higher than strip-till, nearly 215 pounds per acre better than stale seedbed and 380 pounds more than stubble planting.

Jordan says a 5 percent reduction may be justified in some cases.

Soils make the difference, he explains. Those heavy soils may prevent farmers from harvesting the entire crop they've made. “They need to be careful about the fields they select for conservation-tillage,” he says.

He also notes that wind damage can be significant for Southeast producers. “A wheat cover crop will minimize injury in sandy soils.”

He recommends that farmers who fumigate for black root rot and CBR should wait two weeks to plant. “With rough soils, we can lose the fumigant.”

Jordan says some diseases show up more often in conservation-tillage and some less often. “Leafspot, schlerotinia, and pod rot are more common in reduced-tillage. Tomato spotted wilt virus and nematodes show up less frequently with less tillage.”

Insect populations vary as well. “Populations of thrips, southern corn rootworm, and corn earworms likely will be less in reduced-tillage systems. Fall armyworm and spider mite populations are the same with either system, but burrowing bug and cutworms populations likely will be higher with reduced-tillage.”

Jordan and Baughman believe farmers will increase acreage in reduced-tillage systems as they refine techniques and, perhaps more importantly, as they look for ways to reduce production costs.

The Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002 eliminated the old peanut support program and may have reduced the value of peanuts, at least for the short-term. Economics, as much as conservation issues, may prompt more peanut farmers to try conservation tillage systems.

e-mail: rsmith@primediabusiness.com