Ernest Bippert says the yield difference between conventional and conservation-till cotton may be a wash in wet years, but during dry growing seasons, which are more common than not in south Texas, con-till makes more cotton.
His commitment to conservation-tillage, moisture management and technology help Bippert save soil, water, time and money on his 2,000-acre cotton and milo farm near Kingsville. That formula also earned him the 2004 Southwest Farm Press High Cotton Award.
“I had heard that conservation-tillage in fields with mixed soil types would be a disaster,” Bippert said. “But I talked with a farmer who had used conservation-tillage for years and he convinced me that following a prescription for reducing-tillage would work.”
That prescription includes maintaining the same seedbed and following the same traffic pattern to prevent compaction in the furrow. He's planted on the same stale seedbed for three years. “I pull stalks and have found that cotton plants develop a deep root system in con-till systems. I reshape the beds in the fall and run a v-ripper in the furrow to loosen up the soil.”
Bippert plans to analyze the effect of the ripper. “I'll do a soil compaction trial with a meter, but I think we need that ripper. It lifts the whole bed, and sets it right back down.”
He runs a rolling basket and a spiked wheel along with fertilizer application just ahead of the planter.
Bippert said weeds are no more trouble in conservation-tillage than with conventional.
“I take care of winter weeds with Roundup and Aim, usually in late December. I plant in March and like to be finished by early April.”
In season, Roundup takes care of most weeds. “All my cotton is Roundup Ready,” he said. “That technology makes conservation-tillage so much easier. I can go over-the-top early and then I use a hooded sprayer to clean up middles.”
He's also found the hooded sprayer and Roundup helpful in his rotation crop, grain sorghum, “to clean up the middles. But I can't get underneath the sorghum plant.”
He's looking at paraquat, labeled for grain sorghum use. “I tried it on 20 acres and within two days the weeds were burned down. That's really an advantage with milo. I might burn the bottom foliage a little but I haven't seen enough damage to affect yields.”
He said Texas panicum is the chief weed pest. Early control helps. “During the early stages of growth, one-half pint of paraquat is probably adequate.”
Bippert said Texas panicum is the reason farmers in his area cultivate. “But with conservation-tillage, we clean the middles with the hooded sprayer.”
He uses a wind drift curtain on the sprayer to prevent non-target hits. “And we keep ground speed to five miles per hour.”
Cost comparisons for conventional and conservation-tillage systems “used to be a wash,” Bippert said, “with labor savings and chemical expenses balancing out.”
But long-term, he's convinced conservation-tillage will save him money. “Consider equipment. I put 300 hours a year on a big tractor in conservation-tillage. I'd put 1,000 hours on that same tractor with conventional production. When I trade that tractor, it will be worth more money.
“Also, I'm not buying sweeps and not buying as much diesel. I don't run a field cultivator. I can use labor for other chores. I have more leisure time to spend with my family. I don't have wind erosion and if I'm not cutting production, I'm ahead. Conservation-tillage is definitely an advantage.”
He's using furrow dikes to conserve water. “Those dikes can be inconvenient at harvest.”
He said the Texas Extension Service got him interested in furrow dikes several years ago. “I did a yield test five years ago, comparing furrow dikes to level middles. Depending on rainfall amounts, the furrow dikes averaged from 50 pounds to 200 pounds more cotton per acre. Other years the increase ranged from 50 to 75 pounds.”
He builds the dikes as he reshapes beds. “They stay in all year. With conventional-tillage, furrow dikes required an extra trip.”
He needed all the moisture he could save in 2003.
“We went 80 days without rain,” he said. “We got about eight-tenths of an inch after the crop was made and that put some weight in the bolls. Some cotton didn't get any rain in May or June.”
But the soil had moisture reserves. “Our subsoil moisture was as good as I've ever had,” he said. “We had good fall (2002) rains and good rains into March.”
Furrow dikes, he said, helped hold that moisture in the fields.
Rotation also helps. “I rotate with grain sorghum every year,” he said. “The best system is cotton every three years but the price of milo is too low, break even at best, to justify planting that much. Even with every other year milo, I pick up a lot of organic matter.”
He said rotation pays, even with cheap grain. “I have to rotate. Cotton takes too much moisture out of the soil.”
Bippert plants half his acreage in minimum-tillage grain sorghum every year. He averaged about 3,000 pounds of milo per acre in 2003.
“It did pretty well, considering some of it never saw rain. Late planted milo did not do as well as early. Heat stress worked it over.”
Bippert believes skip-row planting helps save moisture in cotton.
“I started planting skip row mainly to save on technology fees,” he said. “But skip row also improved grade and provided a little more moisture for the plants.”
He said skip row reduces seed costs and lowers chemical expenses by one-third. He plants all his cotton on a two-in-one skip with 36-inch rows.
“I broadcast Roundup because we have to keep the skips clean. I don't want to plow it and lose moisture.”
He's pulled cotton stalks and found feeder roots running at a 90-degree angle to the skip. “The skip allows cotton to hold on an extra 10 days before drought stress,” he said.
Bippert said technology also makes life a bit easier on a cotton farm. Roundup Ready varieties make minimum-tillage systems feasible and he believes BollGard technology may be important as well. “BollGard was a good buy this year (2003),” he said. “It did a good job on worms. We had a lot of worm pressure in the spring.”
He said the Boll Weevil Eradication Program also puts more cotton in his modules. “We're close to functionally eradicated in this zone,” he said. “And we're making more cotton. We actually put on a top crop and if we still had weevils, we wouldn't get that cotton.”
Bippert said conservation-tillage is a good match for other technologies designed to improve on-farm management. “I've often thought that I can buy a lot of Roundup for what a new field cultivator would cost,” he said. “And I'm still saving labor, diesel and time.
“But mostly I'm saving soil. It doesn't wash or blow away. I'm making the soil better.”