Cleaning out the notebook from another winter’s worth of meetings, one presentation in particular caught my eye, one that I had not yet used for a story. It was from this past January’s Beltwide Cotton Conferences in San Antonio, and while the subject matter of the talk certainly was important, it was the speaker’s candor that caught my attention more than anything else.
The speaker was Wayne Reeves, retired research leader for the USDA-ARS in Watkinsville, Ga., and he admitted that his recently attained retirement status allowed for more candor than usual in such a setting.
Reeves’ presentation focused on the state of conservation-tillage throughout the U.S. Cotton Belt, including growers’ responses to survey questions about what they see as the advantages and the impediments to converting to conservation-tillage production. By averaging the results of three surveys, he found that the adoption to conservation-tillage was less than 1 percent in the West, 14 to 15 percent in the Southwest, 32 percent in the Mid-South and 44 percent in the Southeast.
Alabama has twice the rate of conservation-tillage adoption as Georgia, he says, and the reason for this is that about half of Georgia’s cotton is irrigated compared to about 15 percent of Alabama’s crop. The response growers in Georgia get from water is greater than the benefit of conservation-tillage, says Reeves.
In the Southeast and Mid-South, some growers evidently perceive weed management as a potential problem in conservation-tillage, especially as it relates to glyphosate resistance in Palmer amaranth pigweed.
One reason for such a perception, says Reeves, is a lack of partnering between researchers, Extension personnel and others. “We have a weed science session, and it’s all about Palmer amaranth resistance. Twelve to 15 years ago, those sessions were about Roundup Ready trials that were going on throughout the Cotton Belt. We can’t solve these problems if we don’t interact. If we don’t attend those sessions and learn how to control Palmer amaranth in conservation-tillage, or if they don’t come in here and learn how conservation-tillage controls Palmer amaranth, then we’ve got a problem,” says Reeves.
Resistant Palmer amaranth is a real threat to conservation-tillage, he says, with the potential to set it back 20 years if the problem isn’t tackled. “With Palmer amaranth, we have got to get the states, Extension and everyone else partnering to fight this beast. Research is out there that shows the benefits of residue and mulch,” he says.
Looking ahead to the future of conservation-tillage, Reeves expects an increase in adoption rates because of changes in the latest farm bill’s conservation programs. About $37 million goes to the Western states, $38 million to the Southwest, $31 million to the Mid-South and $30 million to the Southeast for conservation programs, and that’s not counting Conservation Security Program money.
Herbicide tolerant varieties also will continue to drive the adoption of conservation-tillage, he says. “But it’s a two-edged sword because a constant reliance on these varieties will create problems for conservation-tillage,” says Reeves.
There will be new farm programs for cotton just as there has been for peanuts, he adds. “Farm programs will move more towards funding for conservation programs and less towards direct commodity supports.”
There also are impediments to the growth of conservation-tillage acreage in the United States, says Reeves, including a lack of vision and goal setting on the part of leaders. Brazil has seen a 90 percent adoption of conservation-tillage, brought about by the cooperative and partnership of government leaders with chemical companies. “We don’t have that kind of partnership, goal-setting or vision,” he says.
Reeves says he has worked with the federal government and closely with state universities. “About a mile from my house, there’s a University of Georgia substation, and there’s no conservation-tillage on it. We can’t promote something if we’re not doing it ourselves. On the 1,200-acre research farm I managed until my retirement, we tried to make it a model farm, and we did everything a farmer has to do to qualify for tier 1 of the Conservation Security Program. This goes directly to the top, to the deans. I don’t understand why we don’t have variety trials that are done with conservation-tillage.”
It’s not a matter of doubling the variety trials, says Reeves, because if a variety does well in conservation-tillage, with cooler soils, it’ll certainly do well in conventional-tillage.
And you can always count on an increase in conservation-tillage, he says, whenever there’s a crisis. “If fuel prices go up, you’ll see an increase in conservation-tillage.”