by Karl H. Kazaks
OLD HICKORY, VA — In the sandy soils of eastern Dinwiddie and western Sussex Counties, at the upper reaches of the Coastal Plain, Robert Spiers practices conservation tilling.
His motivation? To build up his soils and improve their water holding capacity as well as reduce equipment hours. Spiers was one of the first farmers in the area to practice strip till with cotton, and has been using strip till with corn for decades.
At the time, the sharp increase in fuel and fertilizer prices led Mark to talk with local ag extension agent Michael Parrish about ways to save on production costs. Parrish, drawing on the efforts of Virginia Tech’s Dr. David Reed (based at the extension center in Blackstone) suggested conservation tillage.
In this approach to tobacco production, there is no discing or plowing or bed formation prior to planting — eliminating several passes over the field and the associated fuel, labor, and equipment costs. Instead, plants are planted directly into a strip tilled field.
“We plant it flat and build a bed around it,” said Mark.
In the Spierses’ case — they are also grain farmers, and plant tobacco on a three-year rotation — they burn down the cover crop, strip till, and then simultaneously plant and band chemicals. Then they plow and cultivate, which builds the bed around the plants.
“By layby it looks the same as other fields,” Mark said. Though if you look closely you will see “more residue in the bed by the plant.” Residue that both keeps the soil cool and helps it retain moisture.
The practice, Mark said, makes a difference when the fields are irrigated. Whereas before Mark would see water running off of beds, now he sees “water going down into the land, not running off.”
“That’s a good thing as long as you don’t get too much water,” Robert said.
Their success has also helped convince other Dinwiddie County tobacco growers to embrace conservation tillage. According to Extension Agent Parrish, 75 percent of tobacco grown in Dinwiddie County is grown strip till, with all of the changeover happening since the Speirses’ first plot.
What’s more, when a storm came through the area, Parrish said, the Spierses’ tobacco “plants were standing up — they have a deeper root system,” while tobacco plants on farms using conventional methods had fallen over.
When the Spierses decided to try conservation tillage with tobacco, they already had a lot of the necessary equipment. However, as they have embraced the approach they have upgraded their equipment from 2- to 4- to 6-row designs. Their 6-row strip till rig was originally a KMC 8-row 36” rig that was customized to accommodate tobacco’s 48” rows. The changeover, said Mark, required “a lot of grinding and lot of welding.”
In addition to tobacco, the Spiers farm about 1300 acres of grain each year — corn, soybeans, and grain sorghum — mostly no-till. They have kept with strip-till corn because of the hardpan that develops in some Coastal Plain soils, leading to limited root development.
The cost of maintaining specialized equipment has led the Spierses to drop cotton from their rotation. At that point, they had to find an alternative which would work on land not heavy enough for corn, ideally something drought tolerant. They added milo to their rotation.
Last year they could have used irrigation on some of their corn fields. They got 70 to 80 bu/A on some of their early corn but later corn was decimated due to drought. “On lighter land we didn’t make our seed back,” Robert said.
Milo fared much better, though, producing 70-85 bu/A.
Focusing just on tobacco and grains have allowed the Spierses to simplify their lineup of equipment. “Thirteen hundred acres is a good size to support a decent grain combine,” Robert said.
Last year, after they bought a new sprayer and couldn’t find a buyer for their old one, Mark decided to modify their old sprayer into a fertilizer spreader. Since it rides so high, it will allow them to come back over top of milo, solving the difficulty of later fertilizer applications for that crop. The modification work was done by General Fertilizer in Greensboro, NC.
Their current rotation will include about 600 acres of full-season beans, 150 acres of double-cropped beans after wheat, and the balance split between corn and milo.
After tobacco the Spierses plant wheat and then double crop beans, using double cropping (and a cover crop after beans) to “get as much residue back in the ground as soon as possible,” said Mark.
The two Spierses do most of the row crop work. Five or six seasonal H2A workers help with tobacco. “Some of our employees have been coming for 16 years,” Robert said. One now even brings his son along too.
“We’re very blessed to have a long tobacco rotation,” said Robert. Their three or four year rotation is limited by the location of their irrigation ponds. Even with the ponds, though, each year they plant 15 to 20 acres of non-irrigated tobacco, to be able to rest their ground close to the ponds. Some of those non-irrigated acres could go without tobacco for a decade or more.
The Spierses do not start tobacco themselves any more since greenhouses became the common way to start plants. Instead, they buy them from neighboring growers. As tobacco plantings in the area have increased in recent years, they have had to go further afield to find enough starts.
Robert is a keystone member of Virginia’s tobacco industry. He serves on the Virginia Tobacco Commission. He is also a member of the Virginia Bright Flue-Cured Tobacco Board, which administers the excise tax (check-off dollars).
“Typically we use a portion of the funds collected to support experiment stations and research efforts into varieties, problems, and diseases,” Robert said. Funds are also allocated to promote the export of U.S. tobacco.
Conservation tillage on tobacco has worked very well for the Spierses, but Mark acknowledged that it might not be “as easy in other areas, especially on heavier, rockier soil.”
But in the right situation it certainly could be a cost-effective method of tobacco production. Who wouldn’t want to help maintain soil quality, reduce erosion, all the while saving on fuel, labor, and machinery costs?