Get ready to think outside the box. First, though, this story will be a waste of time if you don't do two things: get your head right and go find a mentor.
“I've said many times that I don't think there's a cotton field from last year that I couldn't plant no-till this year. If it's too rutted up, that may pose a problem. But otherwise, it can be done,” says pioneering no-tiller Bill Teeter, who farms 20 miles south of Dumas, Ark.
“I have friends who claim their ground can't handle no-till. Well, any farmer trying this must have the proper mindset. Anyone who says it won't work — or has even tried it and not made it work — probably just needs to pull all the elements together properly. It won't work if you don't think it will. You've got to believe.”
The options multiply
Teeter thinks there are just as many — or more — options to address conditions in a no-till field. A conventional farmer is likely doing everything he knows to do anyway. But when he finally puts the plow in the barn and shuts the door, a farmer suddenly has a whole lot of new options.
In order to take full advantage of those options, however, any tendency to push the panic button too early must be dampened. Remember, says Teeter, you're not locked into a set course.
“I don't like to bring this up too much, but the fact is, if you must, you can plow. To keep from giving in to that temptation, though, I always advise young farmers wanting to try no-till to get a mentor. They need someone to help them through the stressful early decisions.”
No-tilling presents options that most farmers never dreamed of, because they've never had to. In the last few years of no-tilling, Teeter has had to come up with a myriad of solutions to field problems. Those solutions are added to those he picked up through years of farming conventionally.
“I had a young farmer come in yesterday. He claimed he was going to have to hip up a bunch of ground. I suggested a couple of things that he could consider if he goes ahead and plants no-till. Once the cotton comes up, he could do these things in order to build the beds up and not have to hip it, disk it, whatever.”
The first idea involves an irrigator plow put on a middle runner. Once the cotton gets up, go out and make a little furrow.
“He may have to do it twice, but at least he won't tear the bed up, lose moisture and maybe prevent a good stand from coming up.
Once the stand is up, he can go in and open it up with the irrigator plow and get water to the crop.”
The second idea is this: go out and plow once, maybe twice. Again, the key is to make sure the stand of cotton is up, there's no early soil disturbance and moisture is retained.
“So once the cotton is a few inches high, he can take a rolling cultivator, turn it around backwards and throw a little dirt up. When the cotton gets 8 inches tall, throw some more dirt up. He's making trips across the field, but the cotton stand is healthy. If he does it enough, the field will probably last five years before he has to rebuild the beds.”
Every five years or so, Teeter has to do something to lift beds in order to furrow irrigate. After five years, the middles tend to compact even though there's a controlled traffic pattern.
“We go out with a very narrow-shanked subsoiler and use it very shallow. I go about a foot deep at a 45-degree angle. The reason for the narrow shank is to keep from disturbing the bed so much that the row is lost. By going at a 45-degree angle with a 1 inch-wide shank, you can maintain the integrity of the row. Then we go back and hip it twice and roll it. Barring having to take care of a field badly rutted during harvest, that's four trips every five years.”
Teeter's first no-till crop was in 1992. He'd been thinking about going no-till for years, though.
With help from the Extension Service, Teeter “just jumped in. I didn't really know what I was doing, but I was determined to give it my best shot. We didn't have to change anything on the planter. We didn't spend a nickel to get into it.”
Even today, Teeter hasn't spent a whole lot of money on no-till.
“We've simply taken old equipment and worked with it. We took tool bars and made spray booms out of them — for broadcast or putting Basagran drops on them so we can spray bands and get right into the crops if we need to. We took one of the broadcast sprayers and put a little framework around it. We then put rice levee gates around that and had a broadcast hooded boom. Easy as that.”
Teeter also took an old cultivator and took the plow gangs off, leaving just the sliding fenders with drill nozzles. He then added nozzles to the middle and had a spray rig for the emerged cotton.
“We have two of the sprayers and two of the cultivators. I doubt there's $500 in all four of them and I used them for four years.”
To his knowledge, Teeter didn't even know there was such a thing as a hooded sprayer. That's why he only used the ‘rigged-up’ tools for four years. After that, he bought a hooded sprayer.
At the same time Teeter got a hooded sprayer, chemicals coming along made no-tilling easier. He found he could use the hooded sprayers and also reduce chemical costs.
If a farmer asks what he should do to get ready for no-tilling, what would be Teeter's advice?
“Day One in Arkansas may be different than in other states. Here, we have a pink bollworm quarantine and in order to comply with Plant Board requirements, we have to use a flail shredder on cotton stalks. I don't know if that holds true in other states, but that's one of the first things I'd find out.”
Assuming the farmer used a flail cutter, he's sitting pretty. The first week of March, Teeter put out Salvo and Roundup in the first application of the year. This was done by air because the ground is still wet.
Depending on how wet and cold it is, there's a pretty good size window for first application. Usually, Teeter has to put another application out prior to planting, but sometimes one is enough. “We just wait and see what the fields tell us.”
100 percent no-till
From the start, it took Teeter about three years to get to 100 percent no-till cotton. The fourth crop was all no-till.
“The first year, I planted around 44 acres of no-till cotton. The second year, I planted 125 no-till acres followed by 325 to 350 acres. The fourth year I planted all the cotton no-till. We now have over 1,000 acres.”
During that time, yields went up significantly. Teeter doesn't attribute all of the yield increases to no-till, but he knows that “no-till has certainly been a large part of it.”
“I think one of the main things about no-till, is the timeliness of management decisions and applications it allows. The fact is that no-till saves so much time. Time is money. You're not disking, hipping, re-hipping, knocking the land down, planting it and then plowing it five times.
There are probably two spray applications — we've sprayed all but about 200 of our acres this year already. We've got quite a lot of our fertilizer out, too.”
Teeter says it's simple: you spray for weeds one trip, you put fertilizer (phosphorus and potassium) out one trip, you might spray once more just before planting, and then you plant. If planting doesn't take, you might have to go across the field five or six times total. That's it.
“That's a whole lot better than all the trips you would normally make if you were farming conventionally.”
A rookie no-tiller isn't likely to make a yield increase the first year; it takes a bit of time for a farmer and the land to get acclimated to the system. “But hang in there because it will work.”
Teeter compared conventional/no-till input costs for his first couple of no-tilling years.
“No-till chemical costs are higher. The obvious benefits are that we're still getting these really nice yields (depending on the field and variety, 1,000 to 1,600 pounds last year) and labor is saved, machinery is saved and time is saved.
“We don't have nearly the manpower or equipment needs. We don't wear the equipment out because it's not out in the field too much. The smallest tractor we have — 100 horsepower — is the one we do the most work with. I wish I had another small tractor instead of the bigger one we also use. It's much cheaper to run the smaller tractor and we rarely need all that horsepower.”