Wheat residue conserves moisture and increases the yields and profits of crops ranging from corn to soybeans to safflower for Kansas no-tiller.
By Mark Parker
Other crops make more money than wheat for Palco, Kan., no-tiller Mike McClellan, but its residue increases the yields and profitability of the other crops in the 5-year rotation.
“Wheat residue is the engine that drives our system and good residue is a reflection of good yields,” says McClellan, who no-tills 4,800 dryland acres. “Our best corn or milo is always planted into wheat stubble — generally, it’s going to be 15 to 20 bushels per acre better than continuous corn or milo.
“I look at planting wheat like taking medicine. It’s something you do for the long term.”
After 10 years as an ag lender, McClellan returned in 1994 to farm with his father, Bob. McClellan and his 81-year-old father have a full-time employee, Dave Ent, and they trade equipment and labor with a neighbor, Tim Marcotte.
Starting Out. In 1995, McClellan began no-tilling milo into wheat stubble. They switched from tillage to herbicides to control weeds. McClellan learned more about no-till by attending seminars and talking to other no-tillers.
With the exception of recently rented land, the farm has been continuously no-tilled for 10 years.
“The longer I no-till, the more apparent it becomes that keeping the ground covered with adequate, uniform residue is critical to productivity,” McClellan says. “No-tilling allowed us to eliminate summerfallow, intensify our cropping sequence and grow more profitable crops. I’ve seen a real benefit to soil structure in a short time.
“No-till allows us to more fully utilize water when it’s available rather than attempting to store it to use next year.”
Wheat residue enhances the productivity and profitability of the crops that follow...
Rainfall where they farm in northwest Kansas averages 22 inches per year.
“No-till makes growing more crops possible for us,” he says. “What we’re producing today would not be possible with conventional tillage.”
When the McClellans started no-tilling, they continued tilling summerfallow acres. Growing two crops in 3 years — hard red winter wheat and milo — became their standard for a few years. It remains a common rotation in the region.
But the McClellans wanted to quit tilling, so they tried chemical fallow.
“The ground just got harder and harder,” he says. “We were losing our residue and we had increasing weed problems, mainly with prairie cupgrass and sedges.”
5-Year Rotation. They completely eliminated summerfallow, relying on no-till to improve the soil and retain moisture.
The improvement in the soil and the moisture conservation makes growing a crop every year on every acre possible.
In 2010, McClellan no-tilled 1,800 acres of hard-red winter wheat, 1,314 acres of soybeans, 648 acres of milo, 513 acres of corn, 380 acres of oats and 161 acres of safflower.
He grows wheat for 2 years to build up residue, followed by corn or milo for 2 years. Choosing a crop for the fifth year of the rotation has been challenging.
“We’ve used soybeans, sunflowers, oats and we even tried some field peas for the fifth year crop,” McClellan says. “Once I leave one crop, I like to be out of it for 3 years to break the disease cycle and to manage weed pressure.”
WINNING WITH WHEAT. Switching to no-till allowed Palco, Kan., no-tiller Mike McClellan to eliminate summerfallow, grow more crops and increase profits since returning to the family farm.
Soybeans are a profitable option, says McClellan, adding that he likes to include a legume in the rotation to build up the soil. But it’s tough to harvest soybeans in time to get wheat planted.
“Our best wheat yields are normally from wheat following wheat because we can get it planted at the optimum time,” he says. “So you can see that the fifth-year crop can have a negative impact on wheat yields and the residue.
“There’s a lot more to consider than a single crop in a single year. You have to keep in mind the long-term profitability and sustainability of the operation.”
Soybeans can delay wheat planting, but they remain the best option for the most productive soils, he says.
Mid-to-late Group 3 beans averaged 45 bushels per acre the past 2 years. Earlier-maturing varieties may offer an earlier harvest, but they don’t yield as well.
On marginal soils, McClellan grows oats as a fifth-year crop. Oats work fairly well as a hay crop and as a grain crop.
“My goal on oats is to break even,” he says. “We had been haying oats, but I want to keep the ground shaded all the time, so we’ve moved to harvesting them for grain. Even though they were planted late this year, they made 65 bushels per acre.
“I had them contracted to a feedlot for $2.25 per bushel. That’s not fantastic, but it achieves our goal of keeping the ground covered. When you compare it to summerfallow, it’s pretty darn good.”
Flower Power. McClellan is trying safflower as a fifth-year crop on lighter soils. He no-tilled 161 acres of safflower contracted for 11 cents per pound; he hopes it yields 2,000 to 2,500 pounds per acre.
“I had to Google ‘safflower’ to see what the plant looked like,” McClellan says. “I didn’t know a thing about the crop, but it looks good.
“The beauty of safflower for us is that it comes out in mid-August, so we should have time to catch a rain and get our wheat planted in good shape.”
McClellan intensified rotations by double-cropping sunflowers into second-year wheat stubble. He no-tills sunflowers when there’s good soil moisture and the prospect of high grain prices.
In 2008, double-cropped sunflowers netted about $150 per acre. Sunflowers no-tilled into wheat stubble yielded 1,200 pounds per acre.
But sunflowers deplete moisture and nutrients and crop insurance isn’t available for double-crop sunflowers.
The difference in yields between milo grown after a year of milo vs. milo after wheat shows why McClellan values wheat. Over 4 years, milo following milo averaged 83 bushels per acre versus 111 bushels per acre for milo after wheat.
No-tilling milo into ample wheat residue makes the difference, McClellan says. In the past 3 years, McClellan’s milo averaged 110 bushels per acre.
In 1998, he planted corn for the first time. Yields were decent for 2 years, averaging about 120 bushels per acre.
In the drought from 2000 through 2002, corn yields averaged 70 bushels per acre. In 2002, Palco received 17.23 inches; less than 10 inches fell between May and October.
McClellan dropped corn from the rotation in 2003 and kept it out until last spring. With improving soil conditions, good residue cover and cooperation from Mother Nature, McClellan hopes to keep growing corn.
Better Residue. To get the maximum benefit from residue, McClellan is trying a CVS Shelbourne-Reynolds stripper header. The header uses rotating fingers to strip off the grain, leaving the straw standing.
The residue is more uniform and lasts longer than cutting grain close to the ground and spreading the straw behind the combine. Improving residue cover could allow McClellan to replace the second year of wheat in the 5-year rotation with a more profitable crop.
Soil organic matter increases slowly in the semi-arid region, but no-till has had obvious impacts.
“The other day, I was picking up some bales on ground we had just rented, which had been in conventional tillage,” McClellan says. “There were cracks out there you could lose a small child in, but on our no-till ground, there were none.
“Residue and improved soil structure is the key to making that happen.”
With stronger grain prices and a no-till system that helps take advantage of them, McClellan’s profits increased significantly in the past 3 years. Intensified cropping increased his gross income by 30% to 40%.
His machinery investment with no-till is roughly the same as with conventional tillage, but it delivers more.
“Since we have less equipment and are able to use it over more acres, we’re able to invest in better and newer equipment,” McClellan says.
Durable Drill. McClellan has no-tilled more than 50,000 acres of wheat, milo, soybeans and other crops with a 30-foot-wide John Deere 1890 air drill. A neighbor no-tills the corn.
McClellan has rebuilt the drill several times. He replaced the factory press wheels with Case IH SDX press wheels that are slightly narrower and more flexible. Thompson closing wheels improved the drill’s performance, especially in wet soil, he says.
He removed the original gauge wheels and installed narrower John Deere gauge wheels that knock down less residue.
McClellan says it’s critical to add plenty of weight to the drill for good penetration. The drill required greasing more frequently than the manual recommended, so he now uses synthetic grease and RK Products’ bushings, seals and sleeves.
Although McClellan hires custom combiners for some work, he relies on a John Deere 9670 with a 30-foot-wide draper head to cut about 66% of the wheat and about 50% of the fall crops. A neighbor combines the corn.
The straw chopper on the McClellans’ combine spreads the chaff across the entire 30-foot width of the header.
This is the critical first step in distributing residue evenly. McClellan wants to conserve moisture and provide a good environment for uniform seed placement. He cuts the wheat stubble as high as possible.
The combine has guidance and yield-mapping capability. McClellan watches the monitor to see how much the crops yield, but he has yet to use the data for variable-rate application.
McClellan recounts that after they attended an educational meeting, his father said, “We already know how to farm better than we do now.”
“There’s a lot of truth to that,” McClellan says with a chuckle.