Conservation tillage currently offers farmers opportunities to save a bit of fuel, a bit of time and a bit of labor, which together generate sometimes-significant production cost cuts. And farmers improve soil and water quality in the process.
Within 50 years, however, reduced tillage practices and other technologies may become essential to feed and clothe a world population that will nearly double while competition for housing and other development cuts available farmland in half.
“Less land but more people to feed without sacrificing environmental quality will demand adoption of new technology,” says Chad Hobbs, a market consultant with Hurley and Associates, Round Rock, Texas.
Hobbs recently discussed the role conservation tillage will play as the world's farmers gear up to meet future population demands, but he also emphasized benefits for farmers who adopt reduced tillage practices now. Hobbs pointed out benefits and challenges during a Monsanto-sponsored “warm-up” session preceding the recent Cotton and Rice Conservation Tillage Conference in Houston, Texas.
“The world population currently stands at 6.5 billion people,” Hobbs said. “By 2050, that will increase to 10 billion. A lot of land will go to development to take care of those people. Since farmers will have less land to till, they'll have to apply new technology.”
Conservation tillage, he said, will be an important part of the equation. “It requires less labor, less fuel and less equipment. Agronomic benefits include less soil compaction, less erosion, and better soil moisture retention.”
He said society in general benefits from improved air and water quality, better wildlife habitat and improved topsoil.
Personal benefits to farmers may include improved yield potential, but increased production does not always accompany reduced tillage. It does free up time for farmers to spend with families or in business management, especially marketing. “Or they can farm more acres with the same amount of time and equipment.”
Adopting conservation tillage comes with challenges as well. “Mindset may be the first obstacle,” Hobbs said. “No-till or trash farming may have bad connotations with many producers. Also, fear of economic loss has slowed adoption of the practices. Some farmers simply enjoy plowing, but recreational tillage no longer makes sense.”
Hobbs said some farmers are reluctant to make a wholesale change in technology and that landlords often discourage conservation illage practices, fearing lower yields or reduced land values.
Hobbs said changing government programs may discourage some producers from switching tillage practices.
“Reduced tillage puts more management responsibility on a grower, too,” he said. “True, the practices mean fewer trips across the fields, but to some that means fewer opportunities to correct mistakes.”
But the savings can be significant. He figures equipment savings at around 40 percent. Fewer hours means less wear and tear. And farmers often get by with smaller units. Overall, producing cotton with a conservation tillage system could save as much as 9 percent over conventional.”
Hobbs also encouraged farmers to look closely at conservation programs included in the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002 to identify programs that fit individual farms.
“Conservation Security programs account for 18 percent of the farm bill budget,” he said. “It makes sense for farmers to capitalize on that. Conservation reserve programs allow more acreage, he said. “Take advantage of it.”
Many producers already employ techniques that qualify for conservation funds. Hobbs said farmers should compare their systems with approved practices and apply for available funds, which are set for 2003 through 2007.
The program includes three payment tiers, 25,000, $35,000 and $40,000, depending on practices employed. Target resources for conservation include soil, water, air and wildlife habitat.
“The budget includes $17 billion, so not every farmer will qualify for funds,” he said.