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Eddie Baggs: Cut tilling to conserve water

With a record drought upon us and next year's forecast not looking any better, producers are searching for ways to conserve soil moisture.

Producers can take out a loan to buy high-price diesel fuel, fertilizers and drought-tolerant seed, but no amount of money can buy rainfall.

Reducing tillage on the 60,000-plus acres under cultivation annually in Denton County could impact the bottom line for many growers while conserving the natural state of the soil and its longevity.

With reduced tillage, less organic matter is lost through decomposition. When soils are tilled, oxygen is increased in the soil and organic material is buried, enabling soil microbes to more rapidly decompose or "eat" the plant material.

A long-term benefit of reduced tillage is an increase in soil organic matter, microbes and earthworms. Residue left on the soil surface also promotes water infiltration and moisture storage. Reducing runoff can allow greater amounts of water to infiltrate the soil and less water to evaporate.

One to 3 inches of water can be saved just by reducing soil moisture evaporation or drying from conventional tillage practices.

The economic advantages are obvious, including reduced equipment cost, less maintenance and repairs, increased equipment life, decreased fuel cost and reduced labor input.

However, not all things are equal in conservation tillage land. The producer must accept a new production philosophy. What is done at harvest will greatly impact the condition of the field for next spring's planting. The producer must have an increased awareness of weeds and knowledge of herbicides, and may need to purchase a no-till planter, spray equipment and fertilizer attachments.

Research has shown that crops can be grown successfully without as much tillage as previously thought. This reduced tillage method is not without problems, but the reduced cost and environmental impact with higher returns prove to be worth the effort for long-term soil and water conservation.

EDDIE BAGGS, extension agent with the Texas AgriLife Extension office in Denton County, can be reached at 940-349-2880.