AS HARVEST winds down this year, you might think about resisting that urge to get out and blow a little smoke.

Making that switch to conservation tillage ranks as a big step for any farm. But in these tough economic times, consider the economic benefits of parking that plow and saving on fuel costs.

Studies by the Conservation Technology Information Center (CTIC) show that reduced tillage saves an average of 3.5 gallons of fuel per acre. (CTIC, 1992) Plus, conservation tillage saves about $5 per acre on machinery costs. On 1,000 acres, those two benefits alone can amount to $8,500 a year.

Also consider that conservation tillage decreases soil erosion as much as 90 percent, and plant roots and earthworm channels help more moisture work its way into the soil. With no-till, organic matter increases about 1 percentage point every decade, as well. That healthier soil, combined with decreased compaction, can help make healthier crops.

Three years of no-till tests at Monsanto's Centers of Excellence farms (1998, 1999, 2000) shows narrow-row soybean production costs $15 an acre less than conventional tillage, with three to four bushels per acre better yields. Strip-tilled corn averaged $10 per acre less production cost, with yields slightly higher than conventional corn.

No-till cotton looks even more attractive in Monsanto's tests. A no-till cotton system can reduce labor 28 percent to 50 percent, with 8-row equipment and a 150-horsepower tractor. It reduces time for land preparation and planting time as much as seven-fold, with six minutes per acre for no-till compared to 42 minutes per acre for conventional tillage. On a 1,000-acre farm, that adds up to a savings of 600 hours a year. Put a $7 an hour labor expense on that, and the savings amount to $4,200 in labor alone.

“Given the cost-price squeeze, many farmers are seriously considering a transition to some form of conservation tillage. And it's a good bet that those farmers already benefiting from a reduction in tillage trips will continue doing so,” says John Bradley, Monsanto conservation tillage specialist.

But it takes a game plan to make that transition successfully. “Conservation tillage is not something you jump into without careful, calculated thought and planning. Weaning yourself from the plow is a big step that shouldn't be taken lightly. You've got to have a plan. You need to have a mentor. You need to have an open mind and the right attitude. If you cover all of these bases, the transition will be much easier than you expect,” Bradley says.

First, determine which fields are your best candidates for conservation tillage. Problem fields under conventional tillage won't be the best place to break in with no-till or strip-till. Avoid weed-infested and poorly drained fields. Your best-producing fields will have a better shot at success. Consider field history, weed spectrum, yield potential, soil type, compaction and drainage.

Once you've identified the best fields for conservation tillage, cut or shred cotton stalks from the previous crop to a 6-inch to 8-inch height. If you follow a grain crop with conservation tillage cotton, add mechanical straw choppers and chaff spreaders to combines. Spread residue evenly across the field during grain harvest, particularly if there's heavy residue.

“As you put your plan together, you need to look out over the upcoming season and make some decisions. How will you manage crop residue, and what can you do while harvesting this fall to facilitate that management? What combine, picker or stripper attachments will you need to use during harvest to ensure that residue cover is adequate, evenly distributed and in the best possible shape once you put a planter or drill into it next spring?” Bradley says.