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Sustainable Agriculture

Conservation Tillage in Western Crops Boosts Profits, Cuts Erosion

In western Colorado, as in other arid Western farming regions, most farmers irrigate in furrows between crop rows plowed clean to facilitate water flow. Using a moldboard plow, however, accelerates the erosion that, in windy Colorado, can blow unprotected soil like dust.

Aided by a Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education farmer/rancher grant, Randy Hines, a crop farmer in Delta, CO, was determined to find a better way. Hines built a new tillage tool that leaves vegetative residue on the soil, ripping the earth simultaneously to create irrigation furrows every other 30-inch row.

Not only did Hines save soil, thanks to the blanket of corn stalk residue he left on the surface, but he also reduced by half his number of tractor passes before planting corn, saving between $35 and $50 an acre. Corn yields remained similar to the previous year's crop grown under conventional tillage.

In 2001, Hines planted yellow beans in the corn stalks, using the same minimum tillage practices, comparing conventional plowing on an adjacent field. Hines noticed fewer weeds, used less water, and experienced no yield reduction in his bean harvest. In fact, in just 2 years, Hines doubled the organic matter of his soil.

Hines' efforts have sparked interest among other area farmers who have planted winter wheat in minimum-till corn, onions in hay, and other combinations.

“Before our project, there was little minimum tillage done in our valley,” Hines said. After other farmers saw his results, every year there have been “more acres not being plowed.”

Converting farmers who prefer clean tillage practices is indeed becoming an easier sell, thanks to research by Hines and others, said Wayne Cooley, a soil and crop extension agent at Colorado State University.

“We've worked together with producers, trying to promote reduced tillage wherever we can make it work for this area,” he said. “Randy is an innovative producer looking for ways to save money.”


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