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Conservation Pays

DVD cover shows sugar beet cropSwitching from conventional tillage to conservation tillage can lead to savings. The Conservation Pays video describes the economic benefits of conservation tillage and points out how it can also benefit the soil.

In the video, northeastern Montana farmer, Larry Heimbuch, talks about why he first began experimenting with ridge tillage for growing irrigated sugar beets, how the farm's operational sequence has been refined over the years, and what the benefits are today.

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Conservation Pays (SWF; 12 minutes)

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Transcript of "Conservation Pays" Video

NARRATOR: Agriculture is evolving and the future looks bright. Farming has gone from horse power to machine power and from conventional tillage to conservation tillage. Just as the switch from horses to tractors improved efficiency and boosted yields, changing the type of tillage you practice can also increase your production.

Many Montana farmers have already made the switch. Over 45 years ago on this farm in eastern Montana Larry Heimbuch and his wife, Arlene, began experimenting with ridge tillage for growing irrigated sugar beets.

Ridge till is a type of conservation tillage that aids in managing crop residue. In terms of soil disturbance this tillage method is said to be midway between no till and conventional till.

Larry's early ridge till practices have been continued, improved and expanded over the years. Today son-in-law Don Snideman runs the farm and practices minimal tillage not only with beets but with the other crops in his rotation as well.

One of his reasons for doing so is that conservation tillage can mean less work. Standing in one of the ridged fields during March, Larry described how it was prepared last fall and explains that no cultivation will be needed before planting this spring.

LARRY HEIMBUCH, MONTANA FARMER: This was wheat last year, this field here. And all we did was disked it and dynadrived it, fertilized it, and ridged it; and it's ready for corn. We don't go over it again then.

NARRATOR: Conservation tillage can also mean more profit. Cost comparisons and some simple math help explain the economics of conservation. The USDA Natural Resources Conservation service has done extensive economic research on what a typical conventional till operation sequence entails.

Lakeitha Ruffin, NRCS economist, used data from that research to compare conventional till and ridge till operating costs for Don Snideman's farm. Budget software developed at Montana State University was used to calculate savings on machinery, labor, and fuel based on fuel cost, type of machinery, acreage, crop yield, and price.

LAKEITHA RUFFIN, NRCS ECONOMIST: Don grows a sugar beet, small grain, and corn silage rotation on a silty clay loam. As a sugar beet producer he had an operating cost of $76.82 an acre when he was conventional till. When he converted to ridge till he saw a savings of $28.53. On one 159 acres of sugar beets he could see a savings of over forty-five hundred dollars a year. But the savings just don't come from sugar beets. Barley, he saw a savings of $19.47 an acre. With corn, $16.39 an acre. On a three-year rotation he would see a savings of $107.58.

NARRATOR: Larry Heimbuch didn't have today's budget software to predict big savings when he began practicing ridge tillage. So why did he do it? And how exactly can a switch from conventional tillage to ridge tillage provide these kind of savings?

HEIMBUCH: Well I did it because of blowing, is where I started. Because we were losing crop. And Arlene can remember that. We had a beast of a time down there. It would blow and we didn't know what to do and I, we happened to be on a trip to Idaho and I'm seeing them doing this stuff. So I said, "Well why won't that work for us."

And I just took a makeshift outfit and put ditchers on an old cultivator and pulled a packer behind it while it was wet and it made it rough. And the first year we increased the tonnage, oh, I'd say about four or five ton the first go-round. And then it got better as we went along. We went and I built a heavier-duty ridger. And we just left it rough and just planted on top. We didn't have to do anything in the spring but just plant. We'd fertilize it in the fall and ridge it - get it all prepared and ridge it.

And it just changed completely. We could irrigate better, cultivate better, and we could lift the beets better because they were setting up higher, and it seemed to warm the ground up a little better. And if you had good moisture, most of the time the beets would start better.

NARRATOR: After these encouraging early results with sugar beets, Larry and Don decided to expand ridge tillage.

HEIMBUCH: We changed our corn spacing from thirty-six to twenty-four so we used the same planter and we started ridging in the fall and planting the corn on ridges. And that worked very well for the corn. We didn't have to fool around and didn't pack the ground as much in the spring.

And now we even ridge the grain ground. Then in the spring all we have to do is plant the grain. So in spring we don't do much. We just hook up the planters and go, which gives us a little longer growing season.

NARRATOR: The decision to improve and expand ridge tillage on the farm was also helped by an NRCS Environmental Quality Incentives Program, or EQIP, special initiative. In 2007 and 2008 the Dawson County reduced tillage special initiative offered informational meetings, field demonstrations, and financial assistance to help producers with the adoption of conservation tillage practices.

This special initiative made possible by the efforts of local producers, NRCS staff, the Dawson County Conservation District, and others was launched to achieve some common goals through switching to conservation tillage. They include reducing soil erosion from wind and water, reducing the number of field operations required to grow crops on irrigated cropland thus promoting energy savings, conserving soil moisture by reducing tillage operations that typically deplete soil moisture, and reducing the risk of failure by implementing more effective methods of growing crops on irrigated cropland.

Some farmers worry about the equipment expense of changing their operations.

PATRICK HENSLEIGH, NRCS AGRONOMIST: Although additional machinery must be purchased to switch to a ridge till system, the reduction in tillage operations and resulting savings in fuel, wear and tear on machinery, labor, and time should offset that initial machinery cost.

RUFFIN: As a conventional till producer Don had to plow, harrow, level, plant, cultivate twice, ditch, and harvest just for sugar beets. That's a total of eight tillage operations he has to make. And that doesn't include fertilizer or spraying for weeds.

NARRATOR: When he converted to ridge till he only had to ridge, plant, ditch, and harvest. And the initial equipment expense does not have to be a big one. Larry Heimbuch began ridge tillage with tools he adapted from existing equipment. The first one cost him about nine hundred dollars to build.

A key piece of equipment that was purchased is the rotary surface cultivator, or rotary mulcher. It puts crop residue into the soil while causing less soil disturbance than conventional tillage.

HEIMBUCH: It probably, ah, you can run anywhere from six to seven miles an hour with it. And it kinda levels the ground. You don't have to use the leveler once you to do it. It's easy run. Like I say, with that sixteen-foot we can do a hundred fifty acres a day.

NARRATOR: Easier pulling and fewer trips across the field save money on fuel and save wear on tractors, but for Larry and Don an even greater advantage of their ridge till system is that it saves time. They use less hired labor and they are better able to get farming operations done on time.

HEIMBUCH: The time in the spring is really the biggest advantage because you gain that time where you don't have to prepare it and pack the ground.

NARRATOR: A ridge till system can also save time during harvest. Larry says he much prefers harvesting beets that have been planted on ridges.

HEIMBUCH: It's kind of neat. We've had some flat planting after we've done this and I'd hate to go back because you don't have to fight that lifter or the defoliator. Small grain harvest has become easier, too, because they can irrigate along the ridges instead of diking barley and wheat fields. And anybody combined on dikes, they know what a problem they are because you're always sitting lopsided with your combine.

NARRATOR: Does switching to a ridge till system really result in higher yields? Let's examine Larry Heimbuch's experience. Larry noticed improved yields almost immediately when he first began practicing ridge tillage on his sandier fields near the Yellowstone River. Why?

Perhaps most obviously, he was no longer losing soil and crop to wind erosion. At the same time he was also increasing organic matter in the soil. More organic matter in the soil makes water and nutrients more available to crops. Ridge tillage added organic matter by keeping crop residue in the field. And that was built upon by other practices such as including alfalfa in the crop rotation and spreading manure from his feedlot. Larry talks about leaving beet crop residue, or trash, in the field.

HEIMBUCH: And then we push more of the trash into the ridge. And if it stays, gets, wet then it'll hold moisture. Some of the beet tops are right here. See here's some of the beet tops. And they'll deteriorate; and there's a certain amount of nitrogen in them and whatever phosphates are left in it and stuff like that.

NARRATOR: And corn crop residue. Larry found that stalks don't always have to be burned off before planting to beets.

HEIMBUCH: We just planted right where the corn stalks were. We've got to do a little something to split the stalk a little bit because it does want to foul up your drill a little bit. And there's a way to do that, too. That's where some of our best beets were this year - where we didn't even do anything.

And the heavy ground gets tight if you don't put something back in it. So that's basically what we try to do there. And uh... that makes a difference. You know, all them roots and stalks and everything. And we've been doing that for years.

NARRATOR: And increasing organic matter in the farm’s clay soils as well as the sandy soils.

The switch to a ridge till conservation tillage system, new seeds, herbicides, and fertilizers are all part of why the farm produces a better crop today than it did in 1967. But conservation tillage also pays an additional dividend. A ridge till system can put you on the road to improving soil health.

HENSLEIGH: Switching to a ridge till system reduces tillage operations; reduces time and labor for field operations; increases the amount of residue left in the field which also reduces wind and water erosion. Erosion removes surface soil which often has the highest biological activity and the greatest amount of soil organic matter; and this has the greatest effect on yield.

Reduced soil erosion and increased residue in the soil means more carbon in the soil for the microbes to break down, and will improve organic matter and soil health over time.

HEIMBUCH: Like I said, it may not work for everybody. You have to, I call it, "farm ugly" because you had the old chains, you know they used to be real flat and everything had to be just perfect and as flat as can be. You have to have a different thought in your head when you go to doing this.

NARRATOR: Adopting new techniques such as ridge till or no till may not be pretty but cutting out tillage operations, reducing erosion, and improving soil health can improve long-term farm viability and profitability. More information on ridge tillage and other types of conservation tillage is available from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.