If there's one thing Buck Braswell enjoys about as much as raising grain and cotton crops with reduced tillage it's helping other farmers learn how to do it too.
“It's just farmer-to-farmer talk,” Braswell said during a presentation to the Conservation Tillage, Cotton and Rice Conference held recently in Houston, Texas. “It's advice from the turnrow.”
Braswell has been involved to some degree with reduced tillage systems since he was in the 10th grade. That was back in Mississippi in 1963. He's farmed in the Lower Rio Grande Valley since 1988 and has been farming with minimal tillage systems there since 1991.
“If folks have iron in their blood and think they can't make a crop without breaking land, they probably don't need to be here,” he said. “We can do without so much tillage.”
He's done without a lot of steel interference on acreage ranging from 5,000 to 7,000 since 1993. “I've sold every breaking plow, every chisel and every disk I owned,” he said. “And crop yields on cotton and grain are just as good as any conventional tillage farm around me. If a farmer wants to, he can make no-till work.”
Braswell said he and other farmers who might try reduced tillage will encounter “some problems along the way. But if I can help prevent some of those problems by explaining some of my mistakes, I'm happy to help. That's why I'm here.”
Braswell said the first thing a farmer interested in trying reduced tillage should do is a bit of paperwork. “Make two lists: Why you should try reduced tillage and why you shouldn't. There are plenty of people to talk to for information.”
That's a change since Braswell took the plunge. “John Bradley (formerly with Monsanto and the University of Tennessee, now with BCG) was about the only one around when I started. I owe a lot to him.”
Braswell said the advantages for him have far outweighed the occasional problems.
“I can farm a lot more acreage with the same amount of equipment,” he said. “I use less labor and fewer tractors with conservation tillage. I figure tractor requirements are about 20 percent of what they were before.
“And this is just easier farming. I'm saving a lot of fuel, and that's a big savings with current fuel prices.”
He once put an average of 2,000 hours a year on his tractors. That's dropped to 400 to 500 hours now, and those hours are on smaller tractors.
“I got rid of all the four-wheel-drive tractors, and I think I'll be able to keep tractors longer than before. I only pull lightweight equipment.”
He's done some more math. Before 1993 he averaged 1.4 hours per acre of land on his tractors. He's whittled that down to 0.6 hour per acre with reduced tillage.
And his fuel bill takes a smaller piece of his income, too. “In the early 1990s we were using about 120,000 gallons of diesel, 15.9 gallons per acre. In 2004, we used 16,150 gallons, 2.78 gallons per acre.
“I don't go to the repair shop as often as I used to. I get to play golf, and I don't have to work as hard. I had to get interested in other things.”
He still works hard enough, however, and appreciates the advantages he sees from his land. “Organic matter content is probably triple what some neighboring fields have under conventional tillage systems.”
He said conventional tillage farms also have erosion problems. “A lot of the soil is blowing away,” he said. “We don't have problems with blowing sand.”
Braswell said conservation tillage demands farmers keep fields clean. “A very few have let things go and did a bad job with weed control,” he said. “Fields look bad, and that gives conservation tillage a bad name. But we can do just as good a job with reduced tillage as we can with steel.”
Rotation also improves the odds, he said. “I use a half cotton and half grain system every year.”
Braswell is currently involved in a fertility study using GPS technology. He's the only one of four farmers using conservation tillage. “We've found that my phosphorus level is consistent and the others are all over the place. My nitrogen may be a little low and the cotton tends to be a little yellow in the summer. The organic matter may be taking up some nitrogen. But the organic matter advantage more than makes up for the cost of a little extra nitrogen.”