Wilcox Agri-Products, Walnut Grove, Calif.
Cropping Systems and Cooperative Extension Specialist,
University of California-Davis
Pictured Above: While Alan Wilcox (left) argues California growers are going to be resistant to anything they suspect is going to affect yield, Jeff Mitchell (right) counters that the amount of creative innovation going on in terms of reducing tillage will have a big impact on some of the more challenging crops that are grown in California.
Alan Wilcox: The water impact hasn’t had as profound of an effect on equipment design as it’s had on the overall industry. This is a region where costs are high. The cost of doing business is high, and maximum yields on any crop are important to even break even. We’re going to be intensely committed to water management and the maximum amount of water. The degree of equipment technology that can lower the water usage is far greater than the effects the drought has caused in cutbacks.
Jeff Mitchell: I can certainly understand that. Our own research and my familiarity is with what people have done in other regions of the country, particularly in the Dakotas. In the early 90s they started to switch to more reduced disturbance no-till systems in the Dakotas to conserve water, to capture water when it comes in the summertime, to allow more intense frequency of cropping and diversity of cropping. That has really had a big impact in some regions of the country and, indeed, the world. The recognition of the value of that opportunity to reduce soil water evaporation and have more water going through the crops through transpiration hasn’t really sunk in here in California in large fashion. It’s probably on the horizon and people are going to be looking at that as, “Can the soil hold more water when the rains do come?” If we look well into the future, with continued shortages of water, there may be transformations that make some of these conservation practices and principles more prominent here.
Wilcox: That could potentially be the case, but not when cut backs are from two and a half acre feet to a half acre foot. If the cutbacks were far less profound — the difference between planting 90% of your acreage and 100% of your acreage — I think you’re right. Right now, the cut backs are so profound it’s as if we’re trying to drive from here to the next town, and it’s important that we get to the next town, and we’ve only got enough gas to get within 10 miles of the next town. That 10 miles doesn’t sound like much, but we still don’t get to the next town.
We have to bring that crop to market, and in California, we have to make yield potential do a little better than break even. Even if we were getting close on water, we have to plant 100% of our acres and realize yield potentials to farm in the west. In today’s commodity market with a 10% or 15% cutback on ground that we’re still paying rent for, there is no room for error there.
Mitchell: Water is absolutely essential to this whole discussion, but there are other aspects too, you know, biological cycling of nutrients in the soil, tightening up the system so there are fewer losses, either to the ground water as some sort of pollution, or improving the overall soil function and nutrient provision capacity of the soil. That’s not a small aspect of the overall system, nor are the opportunities for reducing costs. There are a lot of aspects to the whole argument.
Wilcox: I would characterize it a little differently. The portions of our budgets that are strictly tillage is a minority of our cost. Either way, there is no trade off on cost if it even has a 2-4% compromise in gross. The point is in all of our tillage strategies — and in every situation — we never compromise yield. We either want to maintain yield or improve yield while cutting cost. We are about eliminating cosmetic tillage, non-productive tillage, traditional tillage that was just historically done. We’re about specifically evaluating every pass and evaluating its value to yield potential. We’re maintaining what we feel is essential to getting maximum yield capability out of all the varieties of different crops that we grow.
Mitchell: Some folks have made pretty significant changes in overall farming systems with tomatoes. They’re now integrating winter cover crops, reducing disturbance in tillage, and reducing the number of passes there quite significantly. They’ve also been able to reduce their fertilizer inputs, nitrogen inputs and water inputs to that system there. There has been progress in this whole arena.
“The other places in the world are not California, and there is no more a unique isolated area that breaks the rules more than California…”
– Alan Wilcox
Wilcox: Still, yield is king in the California market. While there has been progress, I agree, it’s more sharpening our pencil than it is just cutting the costs, because the costs of tillage are far less than the effects of poor tillage.
Mitchell: You’re right. If somebody misses their yield target for instance, say they’re 2 tons of tomatoes lower than their conventional thing. That’s about $120-$150, and they’ve lost their savings from the tillage reduction there. I take your point.
While we haven’t had the kinds of leaps and bounds toward further reduction in disturbance tillage in California for a variety of historical reasons, there have been significant improvements and it’s almost probably inevitable that’s going to continue and we’re going to keep moving that direction.
Wilcox: Where we are right now in 2018, we’ve got a number of manufacturers that are trying to establish what will be the next commonplace tillage philosophy. There’s going to be a lot of decisions made and a lot of avenues taken, but still, I can’t stress enough the fact that these growers are going to be resistant to anything they suspect is going to affect yield.
Mitchell: Things are changing rapidly, and they’re probably going to continue to intensify that change, but there’s also a great deal of creative innovation that’s going on toward further reductions in tillage that is bound to have an effect not only on the crops like wheat, corn, cotton, sorghum, those crops that are easy to no-till here, but the other crops that are much more challenging, that California currently produces.
An example, in 2004, strip-till or no-till in California Valley was used on less than 2% of the corn silage acreage. It’s probably now over 40%. That’s a dramatic change in tillage intensity. That’s part of that evolution we’re talking about. I think that’s going to only continue probably into the future with the innovation happening.
Wilcox: Well, that’s where we differ. I think you can talk about what’s happened in 2005 to now, and I can talk about what’s happened from the Egyptians to now. In the last 500 to 1,000 years, there are proven tillage practices that promote increased yields, but they come at a cost. I believe since 2005, there’s been an overemphasis on cost savings. I talk to farmers every day, and I discuss more with people their disillusion with low till than people that are proponents of low till, that were big behind this in 2005.
“In 2004, strip-till or no-till in California Valley was used on less than 2% of the corn silage acreage. It’s probably now over 40%. That’s a dramatic change in tillage intensity…”
– Jeff Mitchell
I believe there’s some common ground in between where we can make some efficiency gains, but not cultural compromises or concessions. If we do 100 studies, we can find in those 100 studies where everything was just right and these new systems duplicate the yields that we get with conventional tillage. When we’re paying off the bank, it’s on the whole 5,000 acres, every acre has to be a success. We can’t have the 100 acres, or the 1,000 acres where it didn’t duplicate the yields. I believe we’ve come to a leveling plateau where people are looking at these new systems closer than they were 20 years ago, or 15 years ago where all they looked at was the savings. That’s where we differ.
Mitchell: There’s tremendous opportunity to learn and to improve right now. This is all very new, very recent, I grant you that, but there are places around the world where utter success has been achieved in these kinds of systems. There is a challenge, it’s true.
Wilcox: I would agree with that, but the other places in the world are not California, and there is no more a unique isolated area that breaks the rules more than California. A lot of academia makes this overcomplicated. If we’ve got compacted soils, we’re not going to have water penetration. If we have compacted soils, we are not going have to root penetration. These are very simple facts that we can’t dispute. If somehow you can, through minimum till or low till, undo compaction from rainfall, harvesting equipment, cultivating equipment or planting equipment, then I would say you’re correct. But today, the cheapest way to promote water penetration and root development, so that we maximize nutrient uptake and water availability, is by a simple tillage practice that is very inexpensive.
Mitchell: Yup, that’s right now, but I’m looking forward…
Wilcox: Well, when your magic wand does that, then I’ll be all on board, and I will be building magic wands. But in today’s real world, we’re doing it with a very inexpensive, small part of our grower’s budget with mechanical tillage that I’ve got 1,000 years of history with. You’ve got 15.