Basic Groundwork For Conservation Tillage Should Be Done During, After Harvest

Dr. John Bradley is widely recognized by farmers across the Cotton Belt as one of the top experts in the science of conservation tillage. For 14 years, Dr. Bradley was the leader of the University of Tennessee's Milan Experiment Station, where he conducted research on conservation- and no-till cropping systems. He also directed the Milan No-Till Field Day, which became-under his leadership-the preeminent reduced tillage field event for farmers in the United States. Currently, Dr. Bradley is working with farmers across the Cotton Belt to encourage and ease the switch to crop production systems that utilize conservation tillage practices.

If you will be growing cotton under some form of conservation tillage in 2001, there are a number of things you need to do - and not do - during and immediately following this fall's harvest. If you take care of these basics in the fall, the transition to a reduced-tillage system in the spring will be a lot smoother.

Here are some of the basics: don't shred corn or grain sorghum stalks, because you'll need them for residue cover. Don't cut cotton stalks too short. Instead, leave them lying on the soil surface. And, above all, DO NOT do any tillage this fall unless it is absolutely necessary to smooth out severe ruts or break up soil compaction.

The ideal way to get the jump on weeds and grasses is a fall application of Roundup Ultra Max(tm) or Roundup Ultra(r) herbicide, either pre-harvest in corn, soybeans, grain sorghum, or cotton, or post-harvest in corn and soybeans. On many tough-to-kill perennial vines, weeds and grasses, Roundup brands are most effective in the fall. This is due to plants moving nutrients and moisture into roots for overwintering. A fall application of Roundup Ultra Max or Roundup Ultra will help prevent crop regrowth following harvest, clean up weeds for the following spring, and help make your harvest more efficient.

A chaff spreader for even distribution of corn, grain sorghum, and soybean residue is critical during harvest. You'll have a more even planting surface next spring. Stalks should be left standing to protect soil from blowing and to anchor residue. It's easier to treat standing stalks with herbicide, and again, planting will be easier since the coulters and double disk openers do not have to cut through the shredded and matted stalks. Residue managers will not struggle to move the thick thatch for an even planting surface.

Cotton stalks should be shredded or pulled and left on the soil surface, cut no shorter than six to eight inches tall. The best bed will be the one left after harvest. Don't re-bed fields unless they are rutted, compacted, or have a hard pan. If you must re-bed, do it in the fall. And, if you're going to plant a cover crop, seed and roll a cover crop in as you re-bed. Your goal should be to have all field preparation completed in the fall (bedded, flatted/rolled to support the planter, cover crop if needed or desired) so that in the spring all you will need to do is burndown with Roundup Ultra and plant with no field work or tillage.

Cover crop residue will keep the soil much cooler in early summer, reducing moisture loss, oxidation of organic matter, and providing a more suitable environment for root growth and microbial activity.

If at all possible, avoid running your combine, picker or stripper through wet fields. Doing so destroys soil structure, causes ruts that must be smoothed out with tillage that would otherwise be unnecessary, and contributes to soil compaction and development of a "plow pan".

When harvesting your crops this fall, take advantage of the vantage point allowed by the height of your harvesting equipment. Keep a notebook in the cab with you, and carefully make a record of trouble spots in your fields: weed infestations, areas with poor drainage, and sections of fields that don't yield as well as the rest of your land. This information will come in handy the following growing season, and you'll have good records to compare against when you're analyzing the productivity of your future conservation tillage program.

Make post-harvest applications of P and K fertilizer this fall. These nutrients will be active and available to the crop come spring. Fertilizer prices are often cheaper in the fall, and application more convenient. Frankly, it's nice not to have to deal with P and K applications in the spring when there are so many other crucial chores competing for time and attention.

I realize that a lot of farmers don't want to take on any extra work in the fall when they're trying to concentrate on getting their crops out of the field and to gin or elevator. But reducing or eliminating tillage in the fall leaves ample time for the extra activities necessary to prepare your field for planting in the spring, and it's time well spent. If you take care of these basics in the fall, the sailing will be much smoother come spring. And, your transition to conservation tillage will be off to the best possible start.