SOME 20 YEARS AGO, when we at Farm Press first started covering conservation tillage, the practice justified occasional mention. Not many farmers were willing to chuck decades-old cultivation methods to take up practices that left crop residue on the soil surface and ruled out in-season tillage to combat weeds.

But we were intrigued, and we followed the progress of early no-till pioneers. Most of the innovators were looking for ways to save soil, improve conservation programs, and leave their farms in better shape than they found them.

At the recent Cotton and Rice Conservation Tillage Conference in Houston, producers had an opportunity to hear more than 50 speakers detail just how far conservation tillage has come since the late 1970s.

Some say only two kinds of farmers remain: those who are currently practicing some sort of conservation tillage and those who will.

Rationale behind the switch has changed from a strict soil stewardship goal to mostly economic aspirations.

Conservation tillage can save money, practitioners say. Soil stewardship, although an important factor, may be a side benefit.

Farmers, researchers, crop specialists and industry representatives point to fewer trips across fields and the resulting reduction in labor, fuel and equipment costs as benefits. In the process, farmers cut down wind and water erosion, improve soil tilth and create better habitat for wildlife. Some say water that runs off their fields flows clearer because continuous cover holds the soil in place. Soil retains more moisture.

Farmers also claim that fertilizer and other materials applied to crops stay put, reducing potential for environmental contamination.

Danny Davis, Elk City, Oklahoma, a conservation-minded cotton farmer since the 1970s, says he's changed his philosophy about recommending the practice to other farmers.

“I used to think, like many researchers and Extension specialists, that a test plot would show a farmer if the practice was acceptable or not,” he says. “Now I realize that the systems works and that farmers can make it work on their operations, but they have to commit to it.”

He says a producer may abandon a small test plot during harsh conditions, rationalizing that he has little invested and can afford the loss. “I recommend he plant enough so that it hurts if it fails,” he said. “That way, he'll make certain it doesn't fail.

“Success with conservation tillage is not a short-term process. It takes time to re-build organic matter, at least five years before a producer can tell much difference,” Davis says.

“But conservation tillage is more than money saved. Most of us can remember times when we lay in bed at night listening to the wind, realizing that every gust was blowing away newly-seeded crops. Now, I know that cover crops protect my soil. That's worth something.

“And when I get done with this land I know it will be in better shape than when I started working it.”

Producers started testing reduced tillage primarily on corn and soybeans. Conventional wisdom said crops such as cotton and peanuts required deep tillage to prevent disease, insect and weed problems. And the idea that rice would adapt to no-till bordered on the ludicrous.

But a sampling of topics discussed at this year's conference (the sixth annual meeting) shows reduced tillage has made inroads into areas once thought impenetrable.

For instance, Steve Balas, a Texas rice farmer, shared his experience with minimum-till rice. “We should have done this 100 years ago,” he said.

Balas, who grows 1,000 acres of rice on a 3,000-acre farm near Eagle Lake, says he saves money with the reduced-till system. After fall land preparation, he doesn't touch the fields again until spring and then only to spray Roundup and plant with a no-till drill.

Curtis Berry, a Mississippi rice and oats farmer, says he's cut costs with hybrid rice in a no-till system. He cites reduced chemical costs and improved moisture supply as significant advantages. In addition to the economic benefits, Berry says the system is good for the environment, especially for wildlife habitat.

Ernest Girouard, a Kaplan, La., rice and crawfish farmer, saves soil, water and herbicide through a conservation tillage system.

“We have a number of different reduced-tillage systems available,” he says. “I use water to irrigate my rice and to control certain weeds in some fallow land.” He works land in the fall to help hold water, and he plants on a stale seedbed.

Girouard also uses a retention pond to capture rain and to reclaim water he uses to irrigate rice.

Arlen Klosterboer, retired professor and Extension entomologist at Texas A&M, said reduced tillage, in some form, makes up about 45 percent of the state's rice acreage. Good weed control makes the difference.

It works in grain sorghum, too. David Walker, a Mississippi sorghum, cotton, corn, and soybean farmer, got into reduced tillage on a limited scale in 1992. He's using the concept across his entire farm now — 2,400 acres. Rotation plays a big part in his production scheme.

“Sorghum has been a good rotation crop for building organic matter,” he says. “It's an easy crop to grow and yields are directly related to the growing season.” He says the economic benefit of reduced tillage on sorghum and other crops is “tremendous.”

Peanut farmers have been slow to adopt conservation tillage practices, fearing pest management problems. But David Jordan, Extension peanut specialist at North Carolina State University, says farmers plant approximately 15 percent of the state's crop with some kind of reduced tillage method. That figure likely will rise.

“Decreased value of peanuts at the farm level, coupled with an increased incidence of tomato spotted wilt virus will most likely result in more conservation tillage.”

Conservation tillage systems are as variable as the farmers who employ them and may consist of pure no-till, where nothing but a planter crosses the field until harvest, or any combination of stale seed-bed, controlled traffic, strip-till, or simply fewer cultivations.

The outcome, according to farmers and others at the conference, means farmers spend less money on fuel, labor, and equipment. They may shell out a bit more for chemical weed control, but most say the peace of mind that comes with knowing that the soil stays put makes up for a bit of that expense.

Subsequent issues of Farm Press will include detailed accounts of conference presentations.