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Conservation tillage silage corn production expanding in California’s San Joaquin Valley

Jeff Mitchell Published on 12 July 2010

California’s San Joaquin Valley is home to several of the most productive dairy counties in the nation.

During the past six years in this region, tillage practices associated with winter wheat and triticale and summer silage corn have undergone major changes by dairy producers using conservation tillage (CT) approaches.

Surveys of CT practices that are tracked every two years by California’s CT Workgroup indicate that the CT practices of strip-tillage and no-tillage were used on about 20 percent of silage crop acreage throughout the central San Joaquin Valley (SJV) in 2008, while in 2004, they accounted for only about 2 percent of the acreage.

strip tillage

Strip-tillage, also know as vertical or zone tillage, involves tilling a narrow band and loosening the subsoil usually to a depth of 8 to 12 inches in the line where corn will be seeded. Areas between the strips are left undisturbed (pictured at left).

No-tillage involves no soil disturbance or tillage between crops. Each successive crop is seeded directly into the residues of previous crops with zero soil “preparation” tillage.

The CT practices of four innovative SJV dairy silage producers were recently showcased in public field days that were hosted by leading CT famers.

Michael and Adam Crowell
Bar-Vee Dairy

Turlock, California

Twin row planter

Michael and Adam Crowell of Bar-Vee Dairy in Turlock, California, have been no-tilling their winter small grain, twin-row corn and sorghum sudan for five years.

They use a John Deere 1590 no-till drill to seed wheat or triticale in the fall and also they use the same drill to establish a sorghum sudan triple crop following corn chopping. Corn is direct seeded with a Monosem twin-row planter that staggers two seed lines every 30 inches in flat plantings (pictured above).

One problem that has surfaced in the Crowell’s CT system is the natural consolidation or settling of their largely sandy soil that has created low spots where irrigation water tends to collect resulting in poor crop growth.

To address this problem, they will do a shallow landplaning following this summer’s crops.  

Ezequiel Jr. and Sr. Correia
Correia Family Dairy

Santa Nella, California
Ezequiel Jr.

Ezequiel Correia Jr. and Sr. of Correia Family Dairy just north of Santa Nella, California, began strip-tilling their silage corn in 2009.

Their experience in that year showed enough promise for success that in May of 2010, they used a 6-row Unverferth Ripper Stripper to strip-till over 100 acres of corn ground prior to irrigating and planting. This implement allowed them to strip-till to a depth of about 14 inches which was deeper than the 8 or so inches that they achieved in 2009.

Ezequial Jr. (pictured above) spent considerable time and put much effort into optimally adjusting the Ripper Stripper and ended up staggering the two wavy coulters that follow the subsoiler parabolic shanks so as to allow better “flow of soil and residue” through the coulters and less balling up.

His measure of success for his 2010 strip-till fields will be 40 tons/ac of corn silage.

Dino Giacomazzi
Giacomazzi Dairy

Hanford, California
Dino Giacomazzi (pictured in blue shirt in center of top photo), is a dairyman in Hanford, California, in Kings County, and is perhaps the most experienced strip-tiller in the SJV silage arena. Since 2005, he’s been refining and perfecting his sustained CT silage production approaches and has gained considerable hard-earned experience, equipment “know how,” and true “systems thinking” to now be able to really make strip-till work at Giacomazzi Dairy.

Giacomazzi acknowledges that considerable planning and preparation are needed ahead of time to make strip-till systems work successfully.

The current year’s strip-till corn is actually set up by decisions and management of the previous fall’s crop. Aligning shallow berms between surface flood irrigation checks in terms of the width of the strip-till implement and corn planter that will be used so as to permit solid corn planting across a field without breaks for the berms is critical to optimizing strip-till productivity. GPS is therefore an important prerequisite for this sort of precision cropping systems management.

This year, Giacomazzi Dairy entered a partnership with a neighboring dairy in which Giacomazzi performed all the GPS-guided strip-tillage and the neighbor did all the corn planting for both farms using a John Deere seeded equipped with after-market no-till residue managers, on-seed and “to the side” liquid fertilizer application capabilities, and a state-of-the-art 20/20 Seed Sense seed monitor.

Giacomazzi used an 8-row Schlagel strip-tiller though in recent years he’s also used an Orthman 1-tRIPr. The results of this partnership appeared to be quite satisfactory to Giacomazzi. 

“This is actually the best planting year we’ve ever had,” he said to the group of about 20 local farmers and equipment company participants at his field day. “You can really see the uniform ‘picket fence’ corn we have this year.”

Tom Barcellos and Gordon Foster
Barcellos Farms

Tipton, California

Tom Barcellos of Barcellos Farms in Tipton, California, has been in the no-till and strip-till business perhaps longer and more consistently than just about any other dairy silage producer in the entire SJV.

Gordon Foster (pictured at right), a Barcellos Farms employee, has done the bulk of the farm’s no-till and strip-till corn seeding since Barcellos started with CT in 1993. 

“The bulk of our corn is now strip-tilled,” he said, “due to the overall advantages we’ve seen with this system.” 

Time and costs between crops are reduced. One of the primary lessons that Barcellos has learned through his years of using CT is the absolute need to be on top of water management. 

“You may end up putting on less water with CT than conventional tillage systems, but you’ve really got to be prepared for earlier and perhaps more frequent irrigations," has been a learning-curve consideration that he reinforces to folks who are interested in getting into CT.

Common points
A number of common points came through loud and clear by each of the farmers who hosted visitors at their June 28 field tours. Advance planning prior to the strip-till or no-till corn season is necessary. 

Laying out appropriately-spaced, shallow irrigation berms is desirable.  Selecting and adjusting proper strip-till equipment for specific field conditions is essential. 

Strip-tillage under optimal soil moisture conditions is critical, - meaning not too dry, but hopefully not too wet.  Using GPS to align planter units with strip-till rows is necessary, as is the timely (usually within one week of corn seeding) application of herbicide. Finally, anticipating and applying irrigations earlier and perhaps more frequently than with standard till systems.

For more information
Additional information on each of these farmers and their CT systems including videos of their field tour presentations is available at the website of the California Conservation Tillage and Cropping Systems Workgroup. To become a member of the Workgroup and to receive more information, contact Workgroup Chair, Jeff Mitchell, at .

Information and photos provided by Jeff Mitchell from Department of Plant Sciences at the University of California – Davis.