Conservation Tillage Field Day at ARDEC

By: Eric Brown - ebrown@greeleytribune.com

Researchers explained to local farmers this month better ways to irrigate under conservation-tillage practices, and also discussed how their research shows conservation tilling not only improves soil moisture, but also reduces input costs, improves yields and, in the end, brings in more income.

According to many who were in attendance, the historically dry conditions of 2012 serve as the perfect backdrop for such talks, and “hopefully” the information shared at the demonstration will convince others that conservation methods are doable and needed for the future of farming, as water availability and changing climate create uncertainty for producers, they added.

Colorado State University’s Department of Soil and Crop Sciences hosted a field day for farmers Aug. 3 to inform producers about the benefits of conservation tillage, specifically under furrow irrigation — also called surface or flood irrigation.

The day included a look at the department’s own ongoing, conservation-tillage project — now in its second year on a 14-acre corn field at Colorado State University’s Agricultural Research, Development and Education Center, just north of Fort Collins. Demonstrations are also being carried out on farms in Weld County and northern Colorado where producers are working with some type of conservation tillage.

Results from the study were revealed during this month’s event. In its two years, the project — which compares three types of farmground preparation; strip tilling, minimal tilling and conventional tilling — has shown that soil moisture at planting time this past spring was far better with strip and minimal tilling than with conventional practices.

Also, in going back to 2011, corn yields with strip tilling outperformed minimal and conventional tilling, total input costs per acre were less with strip tilling and minimal tilling compared to conventional, and, in the end, net income last year was better with strip-tilling than with minimal and conventional-tilling.

According to CSU researchers at the event — Troy Bauder and Erik Wardle — spearhead the university’s conservation-tillage project, traditional practices in furrow irrigation involve multiple, energy-consuming conventional-tillage operations intended to loosen soil, bury residue, smooth and level soil surfaces, creating a suitable seedbed. However, those conventional methods also leave the bare soil surface vulnerable to wind and water erosion.

Strip tilling, for example, combines the soil-drying and warming benefits of conventional tillage with the soil-protecting advantages of no-till by disturbing only the portion of the soil that will contain the seed row. Each row strip-tilled is usually about 8 to 10 inches wide, and every other row is irrigated during the growing season.

As researchers have written and also explained at the event this month, tradition and concerns regarding furrow-irrigation performance help continue conventional, outdated tilling practices. For example, residue left behind by strip tilling and other forms of conservation tillage can cause furrow ‘dams’ during irrigation, hindering the water from making it across the fields.

Recent developments in planting and tillage system technologies and techniques provide more options for successfully dealing with crop residue in furrow-irrigated systems. At the demonstration, researchers explained the crop residue left behind by conservation tilling can by bailed or moved over to non-irrigated rows, chopped down to size, or buried with strip tilling.

Conservation tillage in furrow irrigation is not only possible, researchers say, but offers many agronomic, economic and environmental benefits.

Conservation tillage systems, coupled with more accurate and economical GPS, are gaining widespread acceptance in certain parts of the Western Great Plains and Colorado, but are much less common in the upper South Platte River basin, researchers say.

Artie Elmquist, a Mead-area farmer who has used strip tilling on his ground for several years, and Craig Sitzman, a 22-year-old CSU student who farms with his family north of Greeley where the university examines their conservation-tillage results, were among those in attendance at the presentation this month. While they know first-hand the benefits of using such ground-prepping techniques, they hope the talks there and further discussions can spark more producers to take up the beneficial methods.

They and others at the event said most of the farmers around them still use conventional-tilling practices, but believe this year — one of historic drought — serves as a prime example of why conservation tillage will be needed of more producers in the future. While the dry and hot conditions of 2012 have created water shortages, water supplies are only going to get tighter in the future, as cities grow and require more of the resource. Continued or reoccurring droughts are also possibilities, they added.

Any methods farmers can use to improve their soil moisture at planting time and lessen the amount of irrigation water that’s needed to grow the crop will be critical, they say.

Updated Tuesday, August 05, 2014