“If you can’t buy it, you’ve got to build it.”
— Guy Swanson, No-Till Veteran, Co-Owner of Exactrix
For this episode of the No-Till Farmer Influencers & Innovators Podcast, brought to you by SOURCE® from Sound Agriculture, editor Frank Lessiter sits down with Guy Swanson, a 50+ year no-till veteran. The two of them discuss deep band fertilizer applications, the creation of the no-till Yielder Drill known as “Old Yeller,” and the early no-till movement that Swanson and his father sparked in the Palouse.
If you are interested in more no-till history, you’ll find great stories like these and many more in the newly released 448-page second edition of From Maverick to Mainstream: A History of No-Till Farming that includes 32 more pages than the first edition. Order your copy here.
- [Podcast] Guy Swanson and the Yielder Drill
- No-Till Pioneer Leaves The North Dakota Fields
- No-Till Plays Role in Rotary Club's Vision for Future
No-Till Farmer‘s No-Till Influencers & Innovators Podcast podcast is brought to you by SOURCE®️ by Sound Agriculture.
SOURCE®️ from Sound Agriculture is a soil activator that gives crops access to a more efficient source of nitrogen and phosphorus. A foliar application of SOURCE provides 25 pounds of nitrogen & phosphorus per acre and enhances micronutrient uptake by stimulating beneficial microbes, and its performance is supported by a cash-back guarantee. Learn more at www.sound.ag.
Full TranscriptMackane Vogel:
Welcome to the No-Till Farmer Influencers and Innovators Podcast, brought to you by SOURCE from Sound Agriculture. I'm Mackane Vogel, assistant editor of No-Till Farmer. In today's episode, editor Frank Lessiter sits down with Guy Swanson, a 50-plus year no-till veteran. The two of them discussed deep band fertilizer applications, the creation of the no-till Yielder Drill known as Old Yeller, and the early no-till movement that Swanson and his father sparked in the Palouse.Guy Swanson:
Well, it's good to talk to you again, Frank. Here we are, and it's a rainy day in Spokane. It's been pretty dry on the Great Plains. As you know, last week I did a little survey on Nebraska, Kansas, and Colorado, and yields are off about 40 bushels per acre in the 300 bushel range on center pivots in Nebraska. About the top, they were getting up to 313, 300, no-till, by the way, I want to emphasize no-till and with Mustang banding. We actually got an award from Pioneer for hitting 313.Frank Lessiter:
But the averages we're running around 299 to 300. So we can do it with 140 pounds in, there's no problem, and it's just the weather's got to cooperate. So this year the top yield was about 267. So the general feeling is we're missing about 40 bushels in irrigated Nebraska. In Kansas, yields are down, really down. It's either wind or hail or just really tough weather. It won't rain, et cetera. And so, Kansas, I think, has actually been whipped on a little harder in the dry land scenario especially. So we've got weather problems and they're even more significant. I guess being an old timer, you start to understand, well, this is normal. Weather fluctuates up and down, but this is not the case. This is getting pretty out of control.Frank Lessiter:
If you were in this area and you weren't no-tilling, would you get clobbered more with the yield loss?Guy Swanson:
Oh, absolutely, because the guys that are tilling are losing about four inches of storage soil moisture. So they're basically just playing the crop insurance game, which I think is just a basic way for fertilizer people to raise their prices because they know they're going to get paid. So it's not really the same type of farming that I grew up with or knowing that you're always going to break even no matter what. Well, it does allow for some really poor pricing policies. And so, the major corps get away with a lot of stuff that they didn't get away with when we had a more reasonable crop insurance program. I think that's a good way to describe it. I think you need crop insurance for a lot of the area, but boy, it's way too high, or some is goofed up. We shouldn't be farming the way we are. It's just too much government interference and it comes from Europe. A lot of it is European in its approach, and we have the real high hopes that the no-tillers will always win.
You know, Frank, it's really unfortunate that the STEEP program that was developed in the Pacific Northwest never expanded beyond the area, and it was basically the hidden asset of the Corn Belt. If they could grab that technology, they would've won this battle many moons ago. We wouldn't have the pollution in the lakes and near the pollution anyway. It's all related to top dress fertilizer. You and I both know it's all in the wrong place. So I remember Bert Bach and I... Bert was with Tennessee Valley Authority in the 1980s. He had me build him a drill for the TVA and he had the guys pulling around in Ohio and Indiana, et cetera. He ran it several locations and they were doing plot work contesting fertilizer placement, and then the next conclusion was it took too long to do it.
Well, wait a minute, even though you got a yield punch? Wait a minute, what about the runoff? Wait a minute, you can use lower cost forms of fertilizer. Come on, guys. So we got ripped off. I'm just going to point the finger right now, it is the fertilizer people that have caused a lot of these problems. I have a lot of friends in the business, but they're aware of it too, that their technology is old, old technology by throwing it out there in the wind and letting the rain run it off and doing it on frozen ground in the middle of winter and on and on. Of course, the thing about banding is it takes advance planning. You got to plan ahead, and some farmers just don't want to do that. There's so much on the edge, they just let it go, "Oh, get it next year," or something like that.
Yeah. But no-till is the secret with fertilizer placement, whether you're strip-tilling or no-tilling, and banding deep is a lot of the key. It's got to be in there and certain areas cannot band deep in the country. You just don't have the soil depths in North Dakota or on up into Canada. It's basically just very young soils the glaciers that just left. So the soils haven't really developed very well, but boy, you get into Kansas and Texas. Certain parts of Texas, you can band deep. You can put it in seven, eight, 10 inches if you want to and tuck it away so the wind can't get it and the erosion doesn't take it away and stabilize it using thiosulfates. Really some cool stuff that's going on. Very economical.Frank Lessiter:
So these no-tillers that are not set up to deep band right now and they're broadcasting. And then you lose some of that and maybe you should incorporate that fertilizer, but that's against no-till, and so they do nothing. Would they be better off to incorporate it or be pure no-tillers?Guy Swanson:
Well, if you're a pure no-tiller, you can do it with single disc openers. I was just in the field in Nebraska Thursday training a producer, as well as one of our sales guys. This guy just takes it up over the top. He was a tillage guy. When I first met him, he was in his 15th year. He started out the first seven years, he was tilling it up because of manure. They were spreading manure, and so he felt like, "Well, we just got to stick with tillage, get it covered." So eventually we kept all the angles and a lot of broadcast emails and just a lot of things. They just need the reinforcement of banding. So he finally went to deep banding. When I say deep, minimum six inches up to eight inches typically. We just changed the world for him, and it takes less water for the pivot. There's virtually no erosion.
I pulled into the field and there was one spot. Where did all that water come from when the soil was moving? Oh, I see. It came through the culvert. As it came off the road, it came into the field, but the rest of the field was just perfect. It sucked it all up. It was just beautiful. They had a three-inch rainstorm just in a very short period of time right there at West Point, Nebraska. That was, I think, in about mid-September, I believe. But yeah, it works. It just flat works. Of course, I think in this guy's particular case, he's one of the guys that can squeeze it up over the top. He can hit 300 bushel corn, no problem. He can average 300 bushel corn with 140 pounds in and ammonium thiosulfate and potassium thiosulfate in the band.
So it's confidence. Where does it come from? Where do you get confidence? Well, it's year after year and it's a father talking to his son. You got to have them. I mean, just father and son, that's the way to do it. The best trainers, always the best trainers is the man with the wisdom.Frank Lessiter:
You brought up the father and son. Let's go back to you and Mort. When did Mort get started no-till and when did you come along and get on the bandwagon?Guy Swanson:
Well, there was no reluctance on my part. I just believed in it. But we were big plowers. Oh man, 12 bottom plow. I'd sit on a D6 with a Detroit in it and ammonia tank on the front of it. I'd plow it in the fall. We were recropping with a plow.Frank Lessiter:
You talk about move dirt downhill, that's how you do it. Whoa. So I saw red dirt start to show up for the first time, and he knew it wasn't the way. We had to stop it. So he messed around. To answer your question, I just saw him do a lot of things. And then I had a three-year hiatus. I was in Europe with Caterpillar, and I came home to work with him. That fall, he wanted to try no-till. He had a friend at WSU, good friend, a silver star winner in World War II. His name was Lyle Nagle, and Lyle knew that roundup was coming. So we started some of the first experiments with WSU and applying roundup, and then it was just a numbered material. We didn't even have the technical name glyphosate and we just found out it worked pretty good.
I think that first field we did set a record yield for that particular field, in fact. It was winter wheat on spring wheat, and it was fertilized and banded fertilizing and seeded with a set of conventional drills, but it wasn't totally applicable long term so we knew we had to switch to a purpose-built machine. A lot of people tried to convert an existing machine or try a lot of things. It's pretty typical to think that way. But we ended up with Old Yeller. That was an amazing story. Let's see. Mort got a... Well, he and I hauled all the parts down and I just circulated around, tried to find all the componentry. We got the monitors on it, all that. Got it running by the end of September. So we were seeding winter wheat in October, which is pretty late for the Palouse.Frank Lessiter:
What year would this be?Guy Swanson:
That would be '74, fall of '74.Frank Lessiter:
Okay. Go ahead.Guy Swanson:
It was a big machine. You've seen it before, and that machine was able to go into pea ground and little ground, lagoon type soils, spring wheat. Gosh, it did an excellent job. It was just designed for the hills because it was so stable. It was nine-inch spacing, had double runs on it, had a starter box for phosphate and then a front box for ammonium nitrate. We thought, "Well, that's the way you no-till is you just broadcast it over the top." It wasn't long before we were in serious trouble with weeds, serious weed problems, but just it was working. It was really working. By the end of that fall, I think Mort went to Hawaii and that's when he saw you.Frank Lessiter:
Yep, exactly. Right.Guy Swanson:
I got the job of custodian of the machine, and it was still custom seeding, and they had moved it up to Spokane and Raymond Hanssen had to have a try at it, Mort's best friend. Yeah, we seeded way too late. It was Thanksgiving. We were still seeding away. But by that spring, we tried spring cropping and that was not good. There was no fertilizer placement. It just top dress. Of course, it can't get to the roots quick enough. In the Palouse, you've got a rainfall pattern that doesn't allow spring cropping unless you place the fertilizer. Top dress fertilizer is a disaster. So we figured that one out.
And then there was a nice research program at WSU, and the guy that really broke it through was Fred Kayler, and he knew that placement was the answer. So we were all working together really closely. There was no lack of information sharing. County agents were on top of it and the university was on top of it. Then Idaho got into it, then Oregon State got into it. By the time '79 came around, we had tried urea top dressed, and that was a mistake. And then we finally said, "Okay. Fred Kayler's got it figured out. Let's build a placement drill." We couldn't buy it. His old saying was, "Son, if you can't buy it, you got to build it." So, here we go again.
We put that second drill, second series became the Yielder, which was actually started out as a pioneer. So we moved it to the name Yielder and because that's what it was doing. It got us into spring cropping. We could make that work. We could use anhydrous ammonia. We could use aqua ammonia, all these volatile forms of fertilizer that could not be considered previously. Well, we could band it. And then we began to progress. And then I remember one time, oh, about 1984, about the time we had really broken through with paired row, and I was down at the farm and the last of the crop was coming in. God, it was just in soft white wheat, it can really yield. It was up, way up there, way beyond what we would ever have anticipated 10 years earlier. It was probably in the 140, 150 bushel range.
I said, "Mort, Dad, we got to get a scale out here and really double check stuff going." He looks at me and he says, "Son, see that ring up there on the bin? The grain is right now at that ring, and that's 140 bushel average, and I got another 15 acres to come in. I thought, "Okay. Do it by the rings volumetrically." Yeah.Frank Lessiter:
So some of our listeners are not going to know what a Yielder Drill look like. So what would a normal one be, eight rows, 16 row? What?Guy Swanson:
Well, that's kind of interesting too because we had quite a discussion about that. We hand-wrote out all of our design criteria and I was wanting to do some custom operations. So to answer your question, the first old Yielder was about a little over 12 foot nine inch. Of course, it was stabilized with these outside wheels so it could get around the state loose hills. But no, he says, "It's good enough." I said, "Boy, I don't know. I don't think that'll be a goer. Why don't we do 20 feet?" Boy, I was a leap ahead because that ran the bill up pretty good. So we pulled in a couple partners and we built two machines. Of course, his old saying was you never want to build an orphan. So we built two, and then I had actually gone out and gotten some orders to build another three.
It was a pretty heady time because we're pretty confident we had it figured out, and the economics were so powerful. It was like a $40 an acre advantage, which that was a lot of money in 1980. So we pursued it as a 20-foot machine and we spaced it on seven and a half inch spacing with 15-inch row bands that ran between those two seven and a half inch rows. And then we ran it pretty deep. We thought it was deep. We got it in about four and a half inches. And then as time progressed, they went all the way out to 25 feet. And then we actually built a 40-footer that went up into Canada. It was 220 hooked together on a special hitch. And then we actually skinned them down to 18, 15. Oh, let's see. There was a 12 and a 10, and then there was eight-foot plot drills that universities had. I think we built about five of those very narrow plot machines.Frank Lessiter:
So on this 20-footer, what would it have weighed?Guy Swanson:
It was heavy. The first two were quite heavy. We overdid it on the frame and the box was too heavy. We ended up weighing in at about 32,000 and we had a design... And that's without the liquid tanks or the amenities that we later had. And then as we progressed, we got the frame weight down, we got the box weight down. And then had a customer in Texas, he mandated stainless steel construction. Once we built them stainless, that was the way it was done from there on out. I think we only built a couple. I think we built 10 mild steel versions. All the rest were always built with stainless. You could leave your fertilizer in it if you got caught in a big rainstorm or you could operate in high humidity in Texas along the Gulf Coast. So stainless construction was a big part of the selling point. It didn't cost that much extra really.Frank Lessiter:
Right. So in these guys that ran the Yielder Drills in the '70s or '80s, what would they be using to no-till today?Guy Swanson:
Well, believe it or not, there are still quite a few Yielders running in the steep Palouse and in Nebraska and I can tell you a little side story on that eventually here. But to answer your question, the progression began to greater width and it came primarily in North Dakota. It came from companies in Saskatchewan that had to cover these massive acres. They would have to have 20,000 acre farm. They could have to have five drills to cover it. So they weren't so concerned about yield, that was the other thing. So they went to shank type cedars and they blew the seed in, of course, and that hurt some of the seeding depth and some of the accuracy issues, but for them it was more like federal crop farming. I mean, as long as you're going to get an insurance check and you get the acres covered, yield didn't mean much, and that was in the late '80s when the farm program changed.
There was no reason to prove up your yields, and that's how land was bought and sold in the '80s when the Yielder, it was sold on proven yield. So you always kept track of your records. You tried to get your rotation just right. There was ideal rotations. Best cashflow was always involved barley in the rotation, so it might be barley, peas, wheat, and it could be winter barley too. There was some winter barley that was pretty popular. But in general, that proven yield was the requirement that you had bragging rights and you could say, "Well, buy my farm. Here's my proven yield." We don't do that anymore and that all went away in about, well, I guess in the second semester long Reagan. That's when the farm bill totally changed and CRP came in and the high, high interest rates. Oh man, that made it so difficult, which I mean people think these interest rates we're in right now are high. Hey, they don't even have a clue what high interest rates are.
I actually sold machines at 18% interest rate. I remember driving out of the field and I said, "This guy, if he makes it all, I just wouldn't believe it." Well, we found him a partner to split the drill ownership with, and he became one of the most successful farmers in Southern Idaho. His partner was at Walla Walla. They had two different operating windows on the weather, and so one could go early, the other could go late, and it worked out really cool. They hauled that drill back and forth for 15 years.Frank Lessiter:
Well, we bought a couple of publications including no-till farmer in early 1981, I think, and I remember the contract saying it was a variable interest rate, but the maximum they could charge was 14%. A year or two later, I was damn glad it was 14% maximum.Guy Swanson:
Yeah. Well, yeah, you had to pay stuff off fast. You really had to pay it off. If you didn't, pretty soon it was getting into land values and that's when we really unwound the whole thing. The land values started to slide away. Once that happens, boy, it's a downer. As you know, that was tough in Iowa. I had a good friend that he was bound determined. Well, I think I can probably say his name, Steve Mader, and he had 160 that sat right in the middle of his big Pullman farm, and he decided that he would buy it and he paid a premium for it. I think he paid like $1,500 and within two years it was worth half of that amount. He was trying to support the land values. He was trying to protect himself, but it was just so damn difficult to get through that. Boy, I tell you, that's when you found your real friends. Yeah. Gosh. Yeah.Frank Lessiter:
So when we started no-till farmer in 1972, there were about 3.2 million acres of no-till. Today, the best guess I make is about 106 million acres. Do you think the no-till acreage is flat, going down or going up?Guy Swanson:
I would say that it continues to expand, I think that would be the term, but with these tough weather scenarios, I don't see how you can continue with tillage. It's just you have to get those nutrients down in the ground where the weather can't get to it. You have to go after techniques that are actually born and bred in no-till, and that's fertilizer placement. So if you want to keep doing it, man, you got to start pulling the weight here and use these great techniques that came out of the STEEP program in the Pacific Northwest in the '80s when these great scientists really got on it, Bapen, Dick and Jim Cook, all these guys.
We had an opportunity, but it just wasn't placed right or something because we had this real down period of high interest rates and then we had to ride through the no-till image. Well, there's another crop failure. And then boom, guys that got in the fertilizer placement, all of a sudden they were starting to win. They started to understand it. And then we were able to prove that ammonia could be deep banded and aqua ammonia could be deep banded, which that's a cakewalk anymore. That's so simple to do and just getting it on uniformly and that time of seeding and boy, it pays big dividends. So it's up to the individual.
To answer your question, I think it's an expanding scenario because these federal programs are going to be about stored soil carbon and they're going to be about nitrous oxide and they're going to be about cover crop. The cover crop, it gets pros and cons. It kind of reminds me of no-till in the initial get-go. The problem is it all has to be readjusted to the particular area. Maybe you shouldn't carry it out so far. Maybe you just need to get the root growth there and then terminate it so it doesn't interfere with top yields. Now the crop insurance people need to understand that, that there's just cultural things that need to be adjusted, but I do know that keeping that ground alive and stimulated, man, that's worth a lot of money and the only way you do it is with no-till. So it's got a great future. Yeah.Frank Lessiter:
I was a kid after World War II, so I'm an old guy now like you, but my grandfather and my dad were always planting cover crops. Then we got commercial fertilizer to come along and that kind of died off with cover crops, but now we're back into it. We got a lot of believers in cover crops, but then this has been a tough year for some people with cover crops because of the drought and they're saying they didn't get the return or didn't get what they thought they were going to get. And then there's some question whether some of these guys are going to plant cover crops this fall or a year from now now.Guy Swanson:
I'm on the other side. I have done primarily fumigant cover cropping using Pacific Gold mustard and we get great, great returns. We have follow-up programs. We're pulling samples looking for nematodes. We discovered that we're getting control of white mold and charcoal, rod and soybeans. There's a lot of worldwide documentation about using these FEMA and brassicas, and I always make sure we source the best seed and we're always in connection with the breeder. The breeder knows exactly what's going on.
So I would say I'm on the other side. I know that mustard is one of the best choices. The frost terminates it just in the field of Nebraska and it's just beautiful. It got knee high and then died off, and you ought to see the residue on top of the ground, and all those leaves are loaded with glucosinolates. And so, we have shifted the rotation. We finally got a third crop in there. Now that's going to make a big, big difference is getting that third crop and making it really pay. I think that's one of the biggest opportunities is that third crop. Even though you're really only raising two cash crops, at least you've got high yield potential by keeping the disease issues. You're too close in the rotations typically to be messing with that.Frank Lessiter:
You're talking corn, soybeans, then like a mustard crop?Guy Swanson:
Well, we hit it with mustard right in September in Nebraska conditions around Omaha. We'll fly it on or we'll apply it with lime, if they're going to lime the field. If it's a green chop field, you can lime it, but we fly it on with a drone, fly right down the rows of soybeans and get it to drop right through the canopy. Within a day or two, the leaves just drop, and of course the mustard seed just goes right through the canopy. I think I haven't really figured out everything, all the details of how to really raise mustard. But one thing I learned this last week, I was in Kansas around Lyons, Kansas and Mark Ricker says the best returns he's ever gotten, he raises irrigated winter wheat, and then he seeds mustard right behind the winter wheat, and this year it bloomed and he went to seed.
Well, he probably took it a little too far. You want to green chop it or break it down right before it actually starts to set seed, but it flat winter kills. It's not a noxious weed or it's a domestic mustard. It's called an oriental mustard. It's real high in glucosinolates. It's an old trick from my granddad. He used mustard in the rotation. Before herbicides and all these other issues, and before fertilizer, mustard was a big part of cropping systems. Yeah.Frank Lessiter:
Yeah. So you're talking mustard, you're not talking canola.Guy Swanson:
Mustard, high glucosinolate oriental mustard bred purposely as a fumigant mustard, and you'll find all other types of mustards. There's all through the production cycle. The potato guys are really big on it because it nails nematodes, and so you can shorten the potato rotation if you get mustard on board. So the irrigated guys wheel in potatoes, they got giant margin and they use so much chemical to fumigate, and the real simple way to do it is biological. So they're coming down from $150 an acre fumigation operation to a $50 an acre biological operation, and we're coming down from that to a 15 to $20 an acre operation in corn and soybeans. We just time it better and make it work better. So if there's a will, there's a way, that's how it all works out.Frank Lessiter:
What would happen to no-till in the US if glyphosate got bound?Guy Swanson:
I think there's some hope. I was at Husker Harvest days and I met with two manufacturers that are able to target weeds and they got the smart technology. One was from Holland and the other was US manufacturer out of the Willamette Valley that has got the computer power on board to really artificial intelligence, they can pinpoint the weed, the species and nail it. That means that other herbicides would work just as good as glyphosate because of intensity. You can hit it with a much more impactful rate, and that might be some of the salvation right there is intensity.
Joel McClure, I think he bought one, in fact. I haven't confirmed that yet. I know he did a demonstration, but he needs that at Hugoton because the weeds, they go into stress and you can't kill them because they're almost a modest closed up and they're just trying to survive all the heat and the wind and the dust, and so they survive. You don't hit them with a high enough rate. So they're doing well and then now comes the iron and they start sweeping stuff. You can't kill stuff. Well, I guess I'm going to go back. Well, this machine might be it where we can really smack that stuff and probably reduce the overall cost per acre significantly. It kind of sounds like an Exactrix story, doesn't it?Frank Lessiter:
Yeah. Yeah. Less is actually more if you get the technology working for you. It's like no-till. It's a producer-driven project. The herbicide people aren't going to drive. That'd be the last thing they'd want to do is reduce rates. You're not reducing rates, you're just increasing intensity and then you've got a killer on your hands. You can take care of them. Yeah. Gosh, darn it. I tell you, I wished I had all this stuff back 30, 40 years ago. Man, you could have quite a business.Frank Lessiter:
Right. Right. We're just too old.Guy Swanson:
Yeah. Well, that's the real... I think there's a drill manufacturer called Crust Buster and we're crusty and we can bust them.Frank Lessiter:
Right. Very good.Guy Swanson:
If you can't baffle them with bullshit, you can do it with brilliance, Frank.Frank Lessiter:
Right. There you go.Guy Swanson:
You have to be able to get wisdom to understand, and the young guys don't have it. They have no clue about what we've been through and that's why you are so key. Always, the farm editors are absolutely key in making great success stories. You probably made me a millionaire many times over by just a simple article. I remember the one that was in Farm Journal by Glenn Lorang and all the sudden Katy bar the door, we couldn't build fast enough. That was in the '80s and paired row. Paired row today still remains the number one way to raise grain in the northwest. It is absolutely superior and it's phosphate, phosphate and potassium.
Yeah, I wish we could do it a little differently. Our old buddy the government is still the problem and they got their way of doing things. I think you just let free enterprise roll and let the really smart guys figure it all out and get the land grant guys in there to really help spread the word, guys like Paul Jasa or Dave Huggins or Dr. Shepherds at University of Nebraska. God, these are all really smart people. They work at it really intensely. When you sleep on a problem, you really figure out answers and it's just too much shooting from the hip when you really need to sleep on it. Yeah.Frank Lessiter:
You're talking about impact of farm editors. We have another magazine here that goes to horseshoers, guys that put shoes on horses. Three or four years ago, I got a call one day from a friend of mine in New York and he said, "Four or five years ago, you did a story that I thought in the magazine I thought was really stupid." He said, "It didn't make any sense to me at all, and I was going to call you up and kind of yell at you. And then I decided, 'Ah, I guess I won't. I'm not going to do it.' Well, the reason I'm calling today is I can't find that article and I got two horses at that idea will work on and I can't find the article."Guy Swanson:
Prior to the internet. Yeah. Well, that is the deal. I mean, you just got to get the correct information, not the information. You got to get the correct information. It's just so hard to sort it out. Who wrote the article? Oh, okay. I see. He's from the petroleum industry. Okay. Well, we won't pay attention to that one. You got to get the right piece of information.Mackane Vogel:
We'll come back to the episode in a moment, but first I'd like to thank our sponsor Source from Sound Agriculture for supporting today's podcast. If you want to make your fertilizer plan more efficient, SOURCE it. SOURCE from Sound Agriculture optimizes the amount of crop nutrition supplied by the microbes in your soil providing 25 pounds of nitrogen and phosphorus per acre. It's cost effective and easy to use. Just throw it in the tank and spray in season. If you want to unlock your crop's potential and increase ROI, there's only one answer, SOURCE it. Learn more at sound.ag. Now, let's get back to the episode.Frank Lessiter:
So out there in the Palouse, you've got really steep hills and you've got hillside combines. What percent of Palouse in wheat or whatever do you think is no-till?Guy Swanson:
Well, let's put that a little bit further out there. I think true no-till, are they no-tilling in the fall? Are they no-tilling in the spring? Is the stubble up through the winter? Are they shanking it, putting some fertilizer down and calling it backgrounding and two-passing it? I think it's really small. It's 25% at the most, and it should be 100. It should have been 100 by now. It's so economically powerful and it's so good for the environment and the fish and the dams. Yeah. Man, I hope they don't tear out the Snake River dams because if they do, they're going to find a lot of old tires. They had to stop it from... That's part of why all the money went into steep was the dams because they had calculated out that they would silt shut if they continued with all the tillage.
So it's our good friend, the diesel engine that really brought on all that tillage scenario. They could not fill that ground with horses. It was just impossible. They were doing short shearing and trying to... They just wouldn't flop it unless they just absolutely had to. And so, when the D4 came, they'd hook up a three-bottom plow and they could get up on steep ground. And then pretty soon, they had to have a three longer D6 or a big D6, and then they got a D7 and California really went to town on the tillage. Oh man, they really eroded it. But in the Palouse, you've seen all the dynamics of the tillage and what it's done, and boy, we just would've been so much better off if we could have avoided it, kept the horses in play or turn it back the grass or something. We just did it wrong. Yeah.Frank Lessiter:
Yeah. I got my no-till Maverick book in front of me, and it's a picture you gave me. I'm going to read the caption and then we'll talk about it. "Conventional tillage, some 200 tons of topsoil per acre were lost from this conventionally tilled summer fouled field plowing six inches of rain and all this dirt sitting on the roadway." So out there you had guys that had to scrape the mud. We're scraping the snow off our roads and you were scraping the mud off your roads.Guy Swanson:
Oh yeah, very common occurrence. Yeah. The county engineers know who the no-tillers are. They have the clean ditches. They got the clean ditches. The guys that are doing the tillage operations. They got a clean them four, five years apart or out there with specialized backhoes trying to reform the ditch. No, it was a big, big mistake to tear it apart. But the soils are so deep. Producers, it's such a little speck of time in the great aura of building soil and the glaciers and all the things that happened and snow and even the animals, all the grasslands, we just wiped it out. I mean, we got rid of alfalfa. That was the end. That was the end of the really good soil. Now, it's so variable. Hilltops are red clay, and you can't work it like your granddad did. There's no way. We just tore it apart and everybody courses on a mission from God. They think, "I'm feeding my family. What else am I going to do?" No, it's always best to conserve, always. Always is best.Frank Lessiter:
Well, this article in the book that we're talking about, we had a headline that said, "Soil losses can top $24,000 per acre." So that's a real, real, real loss.Guy Swanson:
Yeah, I think I remember that picture and I know exactly where it's at. It's one of the most erosive areas of Whitman County, Washington. Ah, yeah, it just makes you shake your head. Of course, then not only do they get all the mud off the road and the dirt off the road, and then they re-dig the ditch, then they got to go get the gravel and re-gravel the road. So the county engineers, they feel blessed when they got a no-till. They don't like the erosion. But think how bad it could have been if we would've stuck with the old approaches. Sometimes the fields were plowed every second year. They even plowed pea ground at one time. When I heard that report, I says, "Who in the heck was doing that?" It's my neighbor. Who steep stock a plow into pea ground?
Yeah. Mort always used to say, "Well, it beats summerfell." Well, it did. It did. But pea ground, it didn't go any deeper than about two, three feet. So you had that deeper four, five, six, seven foot depth for winter wheat, and so you did a recharge and so it was a lot better than summerfell. It brought on a real improvement in the economic structure because peas became really the vital secret of the area along with garbanzo beans. Legumes became really important because they didn't go quite as deep, and then they left that reserve there for a great winter wheat crop.Frank Lessiter:
Yeah. Back here in the Corn Belt, it looks to me like strip-tillers are doing a better job of no-tillers and accepting deep banding. A week or two ago, you told us about some new research at Becks down in Indiana they had done on banding. Can you summarize that?Guy Swanson:
Oh, about the massive root system?Frank Lessiter:
I think that was a great article. We copied it all off. I can't remember how much rooting they found with corn. Corn's phenomenal. If you get the fertilizer down, I mean, it's 40, 50 more bushels an acre, and that's why strip-tillers are doing a better job because they have got to place the fertilizer when they strip-till. That's what sells strip-till. But no-tillers, they don't get it down and they end up starving the plant and feeding the weeds and you don't want to be doing that.
Gee, there's actually five steps that you get the absolute no-till promise. You get the rooting channels to get the most moisture in the ground. The second thing is if you band your nutrients, then you've raised the efficiency 40, 50% higher levels of efficiency. And then you have to say to yourself, "Well, do I cut the rate?" Yeah, you do. You don't have to apply as much because the next thing about strip-till number three item is it's indexed, indexed right to the seminal roots, the main tap root in the seminals. Corn, it branches out a little more than wheat, but you get absolutely critical access. And then when you band, the fourth and fifth step here, is you reduce the use of the fertilizer, but you up the chemistry. So if you can add your phosphate and your potassium and your sulfur and make triammonium polyphosphate, potassium thiosulfate in the band, that adds a lot of value.
The final point is uniformity. If the band is absolutely in a streaming flow, the bandwidth is exactly the same. When you see it for the first time, you realize it's not the per acre rate that counts, it's the band rate and further stated, it's the streaming flow. So, many producers don't understand that that streaming flows are actually much more efficient than dry flows, and they don't reduce their polyphosphate or they're liquids when they start using liquids. In other words, 100-pound rate is the Kansas recommendation for phosphate and strip-till, and our guys are running at about 20 pounds. 100 pounds pea is an irrigated production rate. So those five critical steps are absolutely mandatory to get the most value.Frank Lessiter:
Right. So for 10, 15 years you've been involved with the Exactrix System. Can you sum up what it really does for farmers for people who don't know what Exactrix is at this point?Guy Swanson:
Yes, it is kind of a serendipitous discovery with ammonia. It was done on a Yielder Drill in about 1983. We wired up a Raven system backwards. And so, instead of our net effect is that the ammonia lines, instead of frosting, they melted and we were injecting straight liquid ammonia out of the tank. You could do that with a Yielder Drill at 15 feet. You can bring it right out of the top valve and it'll go in the ground as a liquid. Those applications gave us the stimulus to study it more. We had about 19 different projects that didn't work, we finally got it figured out. The final event took an orifice, a special manifold, and a pump. The orifice was the key right at the injection point. So it stayed liquid right to the point of injection, and then we could get it down inside the opener. So it became a piece of opener technology, stopped all the freezing, but man, did we get crops. It was something else when I first saw it. Hit it with Dennis Haugen. Remember Dennis in North Dakota?Frank Lessiter:
Yeah. So correct me if I'm wrong here, it seems to me that your success with Exactrix seems to be in the Western Great Plains, maybe Western Kansas, Texas, Oklahoma, into the Dakotas. Is that right? Or Nebraska. Is that right or am I wrong?Guy Swanson:
No, that is the focus. Why would that be? Why would they want-Frank Lessiter:
That was my next question.Guy Swanson:
Yeah. Why would they be so revved up on it? Well, altitude's one thing. They're up to 4,000 feet in the Colorado-Kansas line. The pH is high. The wells are deep. They're a lot deeper than what you imagine. They're now down at around 600 feet. So the Ogallala is drying up. You can't get water. All right. So maybe no-till ought to be it, right? They've got to a no-till to get the top yields. They've got to get the fertilizer down in the ground because it may not rain. It will not carry it in. So the dry land guys get the advantage of banded nutrients in moist soil and they don't have to worry about the rain. So they can actually raise a good crop without a rainstorm, and that's what happens in the northwest. We raise really good crops with no rain on the crop. It just stored soil and moisture that does it.
So they're very similar to the Pacific Northwest where we store our moisture. 70% of it gets stored through the winter as either snow or cold rains. And so, the soils are very deep and the rooting of winter wheat is such that it'll go very, very deep, but spring wheat won't and that's why we had the very discerning results initially with no-till because we could not get the fertilizer in the ground. So the spring wheat was not going to get much rain on it. But boy, when we started banding at time of seeding, that technique worked. Now we were able to raise dark northern spring wheat where that was not considered a possibility. Average spring wheat yields were in that 35 bushel, 40 bushel range in really good scenarios. Today it's 100, 120 bushel is the top yield.
So for spring cropping, it made a big difference in dry land scenarios. Well, that fits Kansas, same way and it's Milo. Milo is the one that just loves no-till. There's about 7 million acres, I believe, in Milo. Kudos to Walter McClure, he's the breeder. That's Joel McClure's dad, Joel and Ben McClure, he was the breeder in Milo. When Milo broke through on the Great Plains, they were trying all kinds of different ways to raise it, but the eventualities were that Milo did not like compaction, and it did like no-till and it did like potassium. And so, the development of potassium thiosulfate totally changed how people looked at Milo. So Milo even got a nice little rice boost because it was pretty popular for export. It's not an expensive seed. It's not like hybrid sea corn. It's very reasonably priced. And so, for dryland scenarios no-till, Milo is a big deal.
They're harvesting it now, and it rotates good with winter wheat and it works also with corn. Now they're starting to move Milo into ethanol plants. They have an EPA pathway at winter Kansas. At campus, they can move Milo into that plant. Very similar to amylase corn, how they process it. So I found that dynamic also was so damn much fun because you had cows. There was cows everywhere, and pivots and cows and ethanol plants and distillers grain, and then there's oil wells and there's gas wells. And then you start looking at Southwest Kansas and in Texas. Wow, Betsy, man, there's money here.
I thought someday I'd get a helicopter and do a rendition of the success of American agriculture and the first place I'd start is Kansas, because Kansas has got some really good producers and they've done really, really well. But Jerry's now have inroaded in there, in the western part of the state coming out of California, and they have giant dairies. They make a major impact on grain prices and alfalfa's in the rotation. There's a wonderful crop, alfalfa. Gosh, I just love that crop.Frank Lessiter:
Well, a lot of Eastern New Mexico is a number of dairies have gone in there and moved from California or started up in that area too, which is still in your area of expertise.Guy Swanson:
Mm-hmm. Oh yeah, yeah. Well, Clayton, New Mexico, we've got machines there. The other thing about the Great Plains is wind and it blows. I mean, it's serious wind. But with that, you get wind power. It's the Saudi Arabia wind, as one of my professors tells me at WSU. I mean, we got wind, and that's another big economic boost. We're going to build ammonia with the wind and we're going to flat do it. We're going to do it with solar and wind. I'm just finishing up a document here today, ready to go to my guys in Nebraska about the economics where we're at. Trucking will move with the wind. I just took a picture on the Oregon Trail at Blue Hill, and you know what, it's got the windmills. The new 1.6, 2.2 megawatt Vestas windmills are up in the air. It's about 8:30 in the morning and I told my guy, I says, "Oh my God, stop the car." Right in front of this windmill, about seven in the picture, there's a windmill from 1890.Frank Lessiter:
And it's running. There's a little pond or water trough right next to it.Frank Lessiter:
Trough. Right.Guy Swanson:
Yeah. And the guy's no-tilling. There's not a bit of tillage in the field. I'm going to send that to my 96-year-old mother and have her paint that for me because it's such a dynamic of the Oregon Trail, 1840. Then came the windmill, then came the power windmills, and there's no-till on the foreground. It's that Blue Hill, Nebraska. I've seen that one time before over around Springfield, Colorado, I think it was. I was driving down the road and there was an old stock windmill right next to a wind farm. Oh, that's something else. Yeah. It tells you the story, how they got across the plains, how they established themselves. They used the greatest resource they had. It was wind. If they built a house in Kansas, in the northern tier of Kansas, it was built out a limestone. If they had to build a fence, it was build out a limestone. It's just so interesting to see how mankind supports his growth and builds the economic engine, and yet it's the wind. It's still one of our best friends. Now, it's not you're a spray boy, but it's got a future.Frank Lessiter:
I'd like to see that picture. I'd love to see it.Guy Swanson:
I'll send it to you. Yeah, I'll just pull it out of my phone. I was going to send it to Paul Jasa too, because that's right in his territory, right in his backyard. He's probably seen it all. But there's another great scientist, researcher, educator. God he is fabulous guy.Frank Lessiter:
Right. Hey, we've been talking about an hour and I'd like to get into one more subject. I know it's a favorite of yours and have you explain it and that's green ammonia. You talked earlier about fertilizer prices keep getting jacked up and jacked up and then jacked up again. So tell us a little about what you're doing with green ammonia.Guy Swanson:
Well, I'd love to talk about it and I'll give you the short course because it would take me two days to tell the whole story, but it's just change is all it is and it's the original way we built ammonia. You may not know this, but all the ammonia in the world was built green until 1962. It was the United States Army that commissioned a development program, I believe, with Kellogg Brown and root to build a steam methane reformation system, and that's when it became the property of the oil and gas people. That was 1962, and that was the big change that took a place across the Great Plains and all across America, North America is because they could build it so cheap. It was about two cents per pound of end, and that was the starter rate. And then they got you up to about four cents, and pretty soon it was six cents, but the deal is it shut down all of the green ammonia plants.
I put on green ammonia when I was a boy. It was came from Trail Briefs BC, a dam along the Columbia. Electrolyzers bubbling out the hydrogen and making ammonia through a Haber Bosch processor and that's how they did it in Tennessee Valley Authority too at Wilson Dam. So all ammonia that we utilized up until 1962 was in fact green. Some of the technology and the techniques, of course, have evolved not in the US now because it was strictly a program for countries that did not have petroleum. They did not have natural gas and they didn't have access to natural gas. Well, that'd be Switzerland, right? Well, there's a little green ammonia plant in Switzerland. There's green ammonia plants all around the world now, in Monaco. The Saudis now have jumped into green ammonia. It's called the NEOM project.
So why would an oil-rich country be involved in building green ammonia? Well, they're better off to cap the wells and just build it with the solar and the wind because it is more economical and especially if you're trying to transport hydrogen. Ammonia is a heavy form of hydrogen. It's NH3. You can move it so much more economical. It's about 11.2 times better economics in moving ammonia than hydrogen. And so, as the so-called hydrogen economy begins to flourish, well, you begin to understand there's a supporting actor in making that work. Probably one of the better actors is ammonia because it's heavy and you can crack out the nitrogen or you can burn ammonia. So green ammonia is back on the front-burner.
What happened is fossil fuels keep going up in price. Plus it's controlled by hedge fund managers and/or major firms around the world, and it's Putin's baby. He runs the gas station in Russia. So the Europeans absolutely want to get rid of this Putin problem. And so, you'll find that our technology really comes from Europe. So because it's been so pushed to the side of the United States because of the fossil fuel industry and they'll do everything to protect their interest in the oil fields, especially all that wealth that's in the ground and all the horizontal drilling that's being done, they do all kinds of tricks like carbon capture. We find out, well, that's not working so good. And then we find out we're losing a lot of methane in the field right in the bock, and that thing lights up like a major city at night. It's amazing how much is actually coming off of the fracking wells up into the atmosphere. A lot of methane and carbon that's getting away.
So green ammonia is a zero carbon product, and it's right back to where we started. The eventualities, by the way, are very similar to steam power. As we went from horsepower to steam power, that was a big change because farmers would just basically harvest the residues and feed the horses. And then, of course, then we had to buy kerosene to run the steam engine or buy coal. So that was an offsetting. And then once you couldn't get the steam engine up on the hillside, they were just flat land machines. And then Mercedes really pushed the diesel engine, got the fuel system figured out with Bosch. Caterpillar finally admitted to the fact, "Yeah, that's what we got to do." You don't set the woods on fire anymore. You can run the Cats out there. You can get on them steep slopes, get rid of the gasoline and here it comes. Here comes the diesel engine. By 1938, they were the world's largest manufacturer of diesel engines.
That's going to happen maybe once in a guy's lifetime, 80 years about max, and that's what we're into right now. We're phasing out the diesel engine. A lot of guys don't like me to say that. I've spent three years with the company and I was an expert on diesel power, but I tell you, I've seen it coming and I know we're on the right path. We're going to be running engines with hydrogen, with diesel to the side, maybe dual fueling, running ammonia engines. There's a Toyota now offers an ammonia engine. We have Jen Barker in Europe, and then all of the big ships that are coming out, the big two cycles, MAN and Solés, you probably remember some of those big names in diesel engines. They're switching over to instead of burning bunker C in the real coarse forms of fueling. They're basically just tar coming out of the well, but there's so much carbon in it, they have to park all that.
Now those ships will run with ammonia and dual fueling. There'll be some hydrogen and some ammonia go together and they can crack it a little bit. They get improved burning with dual fueling. So the big ships and all the big announcements that you see from the mega plant guys now are all based on the coastline so that they can fill the bunkers around the world with ammonia, very big. It's about a 10X growth market. Right now, we're about 80% of all the ammonia utilized in the United States is for agriculture. The balance is used in steel hardening and it's pharmaceuticals and et cetera, but 80% of it, which is about 18 million metric tons goes... 80% of that ends up... I got maybe 14, 15 million end up in agricultural use. Of course, of that, maybe at the most, five, six million, about 33% of it is directly applied to the land, and the balance is used to make urea.
So, who is the biggest user of ammonia in the world? Who builds the most ammonia? Well, I got to tell you, those Chinese fortune cookies, I opened up one about 30 years ago and it said we'll be the world's largest manufacturer of anhydrous ammonia. They are now the world's largest. They do about 40%. Most of it is coal fired, and that's why we have so much CO2 in the atmosphere. They also waste a lot. They don't have the mechanical means to apply it super accurately. Even though they got some pretty massive dry land farms, they've got a lot of land that they just go out with a bucket, spread it in the rice patty, and it's so wasteful. If you look at some of those maps of where all the pollution is in these terminal river systems, you can just see all the growth, the green algae growth and the phosphate problems.
Fortunately, we have the ability. We can do it. We can straighten out this nutrient problem not only in the atmosphere, but in the soil and the water. We can straighten all that out. We could do it in a generation. We could have it all straightened out if we have the will to do it. The technology exists, Frank, to make it work. So going full circle on the discussion, green ammonia is zero carbon and that cleans up the air. There are other types of phosphate coming and sulfur that are super low column carbon. They're called polyhalite and polysulfates and they're just natural deposits that occur. So there's very little energy loss in building some of the materials we need.
One of the other points I want to make to you about green ammonia is once you lead into it, once you understand it, not only does the nitrogen bill come way down, so does the phosphate bill and so does the potassium bill because guess what, you got to band it. Ammonia means you got to band it. They force your hand, and that's the secret is sometimes we'll have a toolbar running and there'll be a little puffer come out. I call them puffers or little screens of vapor. "Oh, here comes the liquid salesman. Lookout, he's going to load us up now," and they do. They think you're losing it all. You're not even close to losing it. Raise it out of the ground. Take a look. So we have some people that have inventory that want to tell the story that matches their inventory, and that's where the mistake is at. We need the TVA back. We need people with absolute moral persuasion to walk into a fertilizer dealership and tell them not to say that anymore. So that's my little vendetta.
One of my best friends worked for the TVA. He was my teacher, Roger Wilson. I just couldn't believe how powerful those guys were and making sure we didn't have a bunch of Mr. Haneys running around trying to sell something that didn't really belong. It was a weed. It was a plant out of place. It did not belong there. So we need that back if we could get it back. So Green Play works right into that. Green Play Ammonia means that it will be green, zero carbon. You'll get all kinds of carbon credits for doing. It in no-till, you get carbon credits. I think they call it smart agriculture now. Once again, it's another government term, but really it's economics. It's just flat as economics. You can do it if you can serve, if you start thinking conservation. So I was kind of brief on it, I hope, but-Frank Lessiter:
No, that's great.Guy Swanson:
... it all existed at one time. It's just that the greed to fossil fueling took over, and once it took over, North America became... I remember people visiting with me in Argentina and Chile. Remember Carlos Crovetto?Frank Lessiter:
Sure. We had him at the No-Till Conference.Guy Swanson:
He thought we were nuts. He thought we were nuts when he first came up. "What are you doing?" He was educated, by the way, at San Luis Obispo. And so, he spoke really good English and he was a conservationist. Yeah, we got a little out of hand at one time, which I think it was kind of like the old American way. We're in control of it and we can do it. We can make it happen, but boy it's not full of conservation. It's pretty ugly sometimes.Frank Lessiter:
Right. Hey, this has been great. We've talked for quite a while and I think we ought to wind this up, but boy, you had a lot of fabulous ideas in here. I appreciate you doing this.Guy Swanson:
Yeah. We'll see you in January at the National No-Till Conference.Mackane Vogel:
That's it for this episode of the No-Till Farmer Influencers and Innovators Podcast. Thanks to Frank Lessiter and Guy Swanson for that great conversation, and thanks to our sponsor SOURCE from Sound Agriculture for helping to make this podcast possible. A transcript of this episode and our archive of previous podcast episodes are both available at no-tillfarmer.com/podcasts. For our entire staff here at No-Till Farmer, I'm Mackane Vogel. Thanks for listening. Keep on no-tilling and have a great day.