No-till know-how with Dr. John Bradley

The Hidden Costs of Tillage Every year economic considerations are leading more growers across the South to convert to no-till and conservation tillage systems. After growers have tried a no-till or reduced-tillage system, they soon realize that there are many added costs associated with conventional tillage. Using a conventional tillage system requires significantly more trips across the field, which means an increase in time, labor, fuel and equipment costs. With reduced tillage systems, growers are saving money and improving moisture retention and soil quality, which eventually improves yields and makes fields easier to plant. Economic studies at several land grant universities are documenting that no-till can make a significant difference in the profitability of farmers in regions as diverse as Mississippi and Texas.

No-till significantly reduces labor costs and the amount of time required for preparing and planting a field. Under a conventional program with more intensive tillage, a grower may make as many as three to six trips across the field at planting time compared to just one trip in a no-till system. No-till drastically reduces the time required for preparing and planting a field. It can take up to 42 minutes per acre to conduct traditional or conventional tillage operations (disking, ripping, field cultivating and planting), compared to six minutes per acre for a no-till system. For a 1,000-acre farm, the overall time savings with no-till can add up to about 600 hours per season. With a no-till program, growers can farm more acres with the same or less labor.

Lower machinery investment is another economic advantage of no-till. No-till planters require one-third to one-half the horsepower needed to pull larger tillage implements. The largest tractor most no-till and conservation tillage farmers have is their planter tractor. No-till usually requires only one pass for planting, compared to as many as three to six tillage trips necessary prior to planting in a conventional tillage system. Fewer trips can save an estimated $5.00 per acre on machinery wear and maintenance costs. Some growers have reduced the amount of time they spend on the tractor by as much as 60 percent after switching to a no-till system. Plus, tractors involved in no-till or conservation tillage last longer.

Since no-till requires fewer trips across the field, no-till growers are also realizing a dramatic savings in fuel. This decrease in fuel costs is also related to the smaller horsepower tractors you can use in no-till that require less fuel. A no-till system typically saves an average of 3.5 gallons per acre. At $1.00 per gallon, that's a savings of $3,500 over 1,000 acres per year. If fuel prices are as high this growing season as they were last year, there will be even more incentive to eliminate tillage passes whenever possible.

Field accessibility

Another way in which no-till improves a farmer's bottom line is field accessibility, especially in cotton. The planting date (or earliness) is very important in cotton. Rather than tilling the soil, growers can spend these days taking advantage of opportunities to plant. We all know the importance of properly timing weed and insect control spray schedules. Ground sprayers can almost always travel over and spray a field that has not been plowed or cultivated, regardless of field conditions.

Using a no-till system also minimizes your risk on operation inputs. Savings from no-till are seen on the front end of the production season. Some no-till producers do not spend any money on their crop - no fuel, labor or hours on the tractor, until they're ready to burn down winter weeds and begin planting. For cotton planted in a conventional tillage system, a large portion - as much as 30 percent or more - of crop expense is committed by the time planting starts. The remainder of the expense is pest management throughout the season, harvest aids and harvesting. With no-till, initial input costs can decrease as much as $25 to $35 per acre by eliminating tillage. Yield losses associated with disaster, such as drought or flooding, should not be as dramatic as they would be if a larger initial investment was made in the crop.

Many growers already know that no-till is the most profitable way to grow soybeans, especially when combined with Roundup Ready[R] technology. No-till Roundup Ready soybeans consistently deliver higher dollar returns than conventional soybeans. Different soybean production systems have been evaluated at Monsanto's Centers of Excellence research farms. No-till Roundup Ready soybeans with narrow-row spacing (15" or less) produced an average of $16 more profit per acre than conventional-tillage Roundup Ready soybeans.

Roundup Ready and Bollgard[R] cotton are also great enhancers and enablers for no-till cotton systems. Through their use, growers can cut down on the number of residual herbicides and insecticide sprays needed. Mississippi State University economists budget the overall production cost of no-till cotton with Roundup Ready and Bollgard varieties in the Delta at $35-$43 per acre lower than that for conventional varieties. Similar savings are budgeted in the hill portion of Mississippi for no-till with Roundup Ready and Bollgard cotton varieties. These figures are from a survey conducted by Mississippi State University agricultural economists.

At least 10 land grant universities have developed economic cotton crop planning budgets: University of Arkansas, Mississippi State University, University of Georgia, North Carolina State University, Texas A&M, Oklahoma State University, Auburn, Louisiana State University, Clemson and University of Tennessee. Most of these planning budgets show an economic advantage for no-till of up to $45 per acre, with yields being equivalent to conventional tillage systems.

Three main factors impact a grower's profitability each year: the weather, commodity prices and input costs. The one factor a grower can control is the amount of money invested to produce the crop. A no-till or reduced-tillage system produces yields that are equal to or better than yields obtained in conventional tillage programs - but with a much smaller initial investment.

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