A conservation tillage pioneer defies skeptics to reap tangible benefits for his farm, his dairy and the environment.
California’s Tom Barcellos has proven the doubters wrong.
Fifteen years after becoming the first Central Valley dairy producer to adopt conservation tillage, Barcellos is reaping benefits few expected when he was a solitary pioneer trying something new in his corn fields.
Through a successful combination of no-till and strip-till methods, Barcellos has become the first-rate environmental steward he set out to be. At the same time, he has improved his business margin by 20% by cutting costs for labor, equipment maintenance, chemical use, fuel and water.
Barcellos’ conservation tillage system has boosted soil quality and reduced stress on plants, decreasing pesticide use by 25% decrease. It’s not only upgraded his water quality but allowed him to reduce water use by 5% and soil-water evaporation loss by 15%. His efforts have improved air quality by decreasing particulate matter up to 90%. They’ve also cut 962 tons of greenhouse gas emissions each year, equal to removing 184 cars from the road.
“To be able to put it all together and have it work so well is humbling,” Barcellos says.
His conservation tillage system involves leaving the previous year’s crop residue on the field and planting the next crop directly into the residue. That reduces soil erosion by 60% to 90% and increases the soil’s organic matter. The minimal soil disturbance reduces field compaction, boosting both soil quality and water-use efficiency. That leads to better root systems and healthier, less-stressed crops.
Tom Barcellos has improved his business margin by 20% by cutting costs for labor, equipment maintenance, chemical use, fuel and water.
“It’s really paying dividends during this drought,” says Barcellos, who just ended a three-year term as president of Western United Dairymen, a California-based trade group. “Even though we don’t have all the water we need to farm, I have flexibility. By not disturbing the soil, we lose less moisture. That’s the strip-till advantage.”
Barcellos laser-levels his fields to ensure uniform water use. He not only captures any water left in his fields but reuses it five to six times. This year, Barcellos only had to set aside 20% of his fields due to drought-induced water shortages, compared to the average 35%-50% on conventionally tilled acreage.
One of his biggest savings comes from eliminating five to six tractor passes on his fields. That saves Barcellos 8,400 gal. of fuel a year, sparing him a $56,000 annual expense, including labor and equipment wear and tear.
Grandson of Portuguese immigrants, Barcellos oversees T-Bar Dairy and White Gold Dairy near Tulare. The dairies, which milk a combined 1,400 Holsteins, also breed and raise their own replacements. In addition, Barcellos farms 1,200 acres of corn, wheat, alfalfa and sorghum, and custom-harvest 1,000 more acres. He also runs an excavation company that cleans manure lagoons for 50 local dairies and a trucking business that hauls equipment, manure and commodities.
The multi-faceted Barcellos enterprise operates in the San Joaquin Valley--the nation’s No. 1 milkshed as well as one of the worst-air basins in the U.S. It’s a region of chronic drought, water shortages and increasingly tough environmental regulations.
Those challenges helped drive Barcellos to become a better steward of the land, air and water when he began his conservation tillage quest. It wasn’t easy. In his transition from conventional to conservation tillage, Barcellos had no model to follow and few resources to rely on. He experimented with small acreage trials and kept careful records. He altered existing equipment and invested in new machinery.
“Many lessons were learned through trial and error,” he recalls.
Barcellos faced significant pushback from the agricultural community. “There was a lot of resistance to something that hadn’t been done before,” he remembers. “People were in their comfort zones.”
After three years of experimenting, Barcellos incorporated all his fields into conservation-tillage rotations. Today, he strip-tills all his corn and sorghum and no-tills his wheat and alfalfa.
“Tom is incredibly tenacious and innovative,” says Jeff Mitchell, a cropping specialist with the University of California at Davis who has worked extensively on conservation tillage. “He went way beyond anybody else in California. His belief and dedication allowed him to achieve his successes.”
Barcellos’ persistence has not only paid off for his operation but for others.
“Since Tom’s successful introduction of conservation tillage in the area, more than 750,000 acres have followed his lead and are also under similar tillage systems,” Mitchell says.
In May, the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy recognized Barcellos for Outstanding Achievement in Resource Stewardship. The national award honors commitment to stewardship and sustainability while delivering exceptional results that are good for business, the environment and the community.
“Tom Barcellos was a pioneer of conservation tillage in the Central Valley, and his determination allowed many others to follow in his footsteps,” says Arizona dairy producer Paul Rovey, who chairs Dairy Management Inc™ and was a member of the judging panel. “We are pleased to recognize his successful model of resource stewardship that is paying dividends, particularly during this time of drought.”