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For this episode of the No-Till Farmer Influencers & Innovators Podcast, brought to you by SOURCE® from Sound Agriculture, Roy Pfaltzgraff of Haxtun, Colo., talks about his 30-year assessment of the costs of tillage, no-tillage with fallow and no-till with a soil health focus.

Cropping 2,200 dryland acres in an area that receives less than 14 inches of average rainfall yearly, Roy shares his insights from a presentation at the thirty-second annual National No-Tillage Conference on how he’s changed the operation’s focus over the past 8 years while raising 12 or more different crops each year in this extremely dry area of northeastern Colorado.

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Full Transcript

Frank Lessiter:

Hello, I'm Frank Lessiter, editor of No-Till Farmer, and this is the 126th episode of our No-Till Influencers & Innovators podcast. For this latest episode in this series of Influencers & Innovator podcasts brought to you by SOURCE by Sound Agriculture, Roy Pfaltzgraff of Haxtum, Colorado, talks about his 30-year assessment of the costs of tillage, no-tillage with fallow, and no-till with a soil health focus.

Cropping 2,200 dryland acres in an area that receives less than 14 inches of rainfall yearly, Roy shares his insights from a presentation at the 32nd annual National No-Till Conference on how he's changed the operation's focus over the past eight years while raising 12 or more different crops each year in this extremely dry area of Northeastern Colorado.

Roy Pfaltzgraff:

The question is why do we do what we do? This is my corn from two years ago. That's what 4 1/2 inches of rainfall look like on a cornfield that's drilled. We drill everything on 12-inch spacing. And then, this is this year. That's one short-stature corn plant. I had plants out there that were set in five years. And the problem is that was the 1st of August and it didn't rain until the 16th of October. Between that and when we go over my test plots, I'll talk about all the data on there. But the climate that I'm in, Ray Archuleta calls it, it's a very fragile ecosystem. I have very little room for mistakes. Because if I screw something up, I don't have rainfall to make up for it.

These are the quotes that I always start my talks with and I always like to remind people of this is, "Challenging the status quo takes commitment, courage, imagination, and above all, dedication to learning." And that's why you're here, is to learn and to get ideas. I will say, what I'm going to be talking about, I don't want you to go home and try. Part of it is a lot of you guys farm in a part of the world where you actually need things to control diseases and insects and things like that. But I want you to think about what I am talking about, the ideas, and my thought process. Because if you can learn from my thought process and learn how to apply it on your operation, that is my goal, is to help you challenge your thinking.

The second quote, that direct piece is, "You should be challenging your own thinking every day." All the times you're making all those decisions, why are we doing this? Is this the right thing to be doing? And it's not to question who you are to second guess yourself it's, "Am I missing something? Is there a bigger piece that I'm overlooking? Is there something that I learned in a conference that could apply to this, that could make this better?" Or when you're out there looking at crops, it's like, "Oh, that's different. Why is that different?" And then to ask people.

I love taking pictures of stuff and sending it to the friends that I have and be like, "What's going on here?" And the best response is you send it to these people that are the experts and their reply is, "I have no clue." And it's like, "Yes, I've got something that's different." And so that's always kind of what gets me fired up. And then the mental aspect.

And here's the other picture I was talking about. Notice the header trailer is sitting there empty yet, so they're having a hard time getting the header off of that. I think they'd probably be better off just unhooking the header and leaving it. But what we do in agriculture is very challenging. We're doing it by ourselves. We're doing it in our... The biggest thing that affects us, that affects our yields is completely out of our control. And so we're doing what we can to minimize those risks.

And as I talked about it yesterday, the personal side, the what ifs. What if I would've gotten everything before that rain came, or what if I would've waited until that rain came? This other variety, what if I would do this other plant population? What if? What if I were to use more fertilizer? What if I were to use less fertilizer? There's always those challenges and we always are second-guessing ourselves. And it's good to look back and say, "Well, this is what I learned from it." But you can't sit there and say, "Well, what if I would've done this?" Because you'll never know.

Because next year the weather is going to be completely different, especially in my case, we average 14 to 16 inches of rainfall, but the beauty of average is one year we'll have 4 1/2 inches and the next year we'll have 30 inches. And when they average out, hey, we're at 16 inches. That doesn't mean it's every year. I think we have an average year about once every 10 years. The rest of it is either above or below, and that's what average is all about. It's the middle.

The pressure to maintain the operation. That legacy is a beautiful thing. It's your family story, which is the most valuable thing you have as a farmer is that story of how your family got to where it is. But at the same time, it can be an anchor if that's the focus, if that drags us back if that limits us. So we have to really always like, "Yeah, I want to pay homage to my father and my grandfather, but at the same time, I don't want to be in that position of, 'Well, I got to do what they did.'"

I have a neighbor I was talking to once, a pretty innovative guy. He actually ran the research farm at Colorado State University for quite a while before he came back to the farm. And I was talking to him once and I was like, "Hey, Chris, why don't you have a Shelbourne? Why don't you have a stripper head?" His comment was, "Because I'd like to have a stripper head. I think there's a lot of benefits from that. But my dad thinks that there's just too much header loss, and so I'm going to wait until he's gone before I get one." And it's just like you're limiting what you think is a good idea because of your father's influence.

Where if it's really what you think is right, why would you let that limit yourself? And to the older generation, it's one of those things when the younger generation comes in and says, "I have this idea." And the best thing you can do is to listen. Not necessarily agree. Don't, "Oh yeah, you can do whatever you want." Because sometimes there's some pretty hair-brained ideas that show up. But sometimes that idea is worth listening to and listening to that idea and giving it the opportunity to grow might completely change your operation. And that's what we've experienced.

My dad stepped back. My parents, both parents stepped back. I have ideas, and as long as you have a market, as long as you have evidence that it has a chance of working, there's nothing to stop. And then there's a five-acre piece. I can do anything in that field that I want to. There is zero limit on it.

I planted green in that one year I was raising einkorn wheat and I actually sprayed out the einkorn to put in bloody butcher corn. I sprayed out $500 an acre seed to put in $300 an acre seed in a five-acre patch. My dad's like, "It's your five-acre patch. You can do whatever you want." It's like, "Okay. Well, you just remember that Dad because one of these days there might be grapevines and lavender out there. Who knows?" I don't know what's going to be the next thing that catches my attention, but I have that opportunity to experiment if I want it, but it's limited. If I want to do something big, it's got to be marketed beforehand.

And then the whole marketing thing, people ask me, "How do you raise so many different crops? How do you find a market? How do you store it?" It's challenging, but it's possible. My dad is always concerned that I'm going to come and I'm going to talk at different conferences and people are going to take the market that I have. Somebody's going to move in. He goes, "What are you going to do?" I said, "Well, I'll find a better market." He's like, "Well, we're going to saturate the market." And it's like, "Haven't you been to Denver lately? There's 3 million people that live there. I can't feed them with our operation, so I need to bring my friends along. I need to help other people do the same thing to have the same benefits." And so sometimes we run into that challenge of, I've got this great little market and I want to hold onto it, but at the same time, I want to grow that market so I can bring my friends.

And there was something that happened with white sorghum lately, and I found out that a local processor was looking for more. So I had a meeting with the processor and they said, "Well, we're looking for acres." And I said, "How many acres do you want?" I got home and I sent out an email to two dozen guys that I know and over half of them are like, "Send us the contact information." I talked to that same company like a couple of weeks later and the guy's like, "Whoa, you got to slow down." And it's like, "You said you wanted acres. I can get you acres. I can get you acres with really good producers." These are the guys that I call when I have questions. The markets are there. And as long as we help each other, there's going to be even more. I believe in abundance. There's abundance enough for everyone, but we have to work together to achieve that.

Community, I do everybody else in my community a favor. Because I know at the coffee shop they're talking about me, and so they're not talking about the other people. I got everybody else's back that wants to do something crazy because it's definitely not as crazy as that guy south of town. It has been interesting. And the resistance in the community, so even when I speak locally, I'm like, "Yeah, this morning when I came here. I'm speaking at an event 30 miles from home. I'm like, 'Yeah, instead of turning north to come here, I turned south and I went the long way so I actually drove 65 miles to get here, so therefore I can be an expert today.'" Because they have that attitude.

And part of it is, people are always, it's a competition, and we feel as though we have to compete with our neighbors and we don't. Because if I went out of business, the food industry wouldn't notice. If my neighbor went out of business, the food industry wouldn't notice. If both of us went out of business, the food industry wouldn't notice. So why are we competing with a neighbor when our competition is the food industry? And if we actually work together, if my neighbors got together and we started grouping high-quality products, we actually then can go and push the food companies around and say, "Hey, we have a hundred thousand acres that are raising these things and these methods with this quality, what are you going to pay us?" And so sometimes, we need to move past the challenges of the community and figure out how we can work with the community to get there.

I love this one. "Oh, our climate doesn't do that. We're too wet to do this. We're too dry to do this." It's like, "Well, are you too dry to do the practice or too wet to do the practice or you too are dry to do it or too wet to do the idea? What's the principle behind it?" I say, "We're too dry to do cover crops." The great part is I'm finding research that actually agrees with me and they actually show the science behind it. I'm too dry to do cover crops like they do cover crops in Iowa. But I'm not too dry to have diversity in my operation to give the same soil benefits that the cover crops are intended to do. So sometimes we get hung up on a practice and we don't really look into why is this practice so important. Why is this being promoted? Well, they promote cover crops because it gives you diversity. And a lot of times people have a hard time doing diversity because they don't have any markets. So we're going to raise a whole blend of stuff that we can't market.

People ask me about, "All the crops you didn't raise, where's your market?" It's like, "Where do you think they get all the cover crops from?" Somebody has to raise that and somebody has to raise it maybe as a companion crop, maybe as a monoculture, but I get the benefit from that, that if I tried to go out there and seed a cover crop, when I seeded that cover crop, that's my only crop for the year because I can't get something started after I harvest my other crops.

I start harvest in July. Our rains end in July, so I can't get something started. But if somebody in my area wants to do cover crops, they do it. And what they're using it for? And this is what driving me nuts. They're like, "I raised a cover crop." And it's like, "Well, didn't you run your cattle across it?" They're like, "Yeah." And I said, "Well, you raised forage. Let's call it what it is."

"Well, it's a cover crop."

"No, it's forage."

If it's a cover crop, it just stands out there and they drill through it. And I mean, you see that rye, I can't get rye that tall until July. There's no way I could plant green into rye. We've tried it. I have neighbors that have tried it. We have something called pant evaporation rate that eats our lunch.

Okay. So moving on to the fun stuff. So what I'm questioning in this is row spacing, plant population, seed treatments, and some custom stuff. Too many times in agriculture, the big companies tell us what we're going to do, and this is the expectation. And that's where the community piece in. It's like, "Well, we all plant our corn in 30-inch rows." Well, they used to be in 36s and then they went to 30s, and now there's people that talk about 20s, and we've had people do it at 15s.

It's like, "Well, why? Why are we doing this? Why is there that interest?" Hand-in-hand with row spacing is plant population. Because if you don't change your population and you change your row spacing, it changes your spacing inside the row. So if you change the width of the row, you're going to have to change your population to fill that row. I think I have some pretty good little diagrams that I've come up to show that off.

But I'm looking at this. Of course, that's my buckwheat over there. I love buckwheat. It's a great crop. It does so many things for the soil. It releases phosphorus. It also releases manganese. Manganese, most people don't know what manganese does. It's not talked about very often. It's a micronutrient that is actually the center of the molecule for photosynthesis and the center of the molecule that helps close the stomata for plant respiration.

When you have enough manganese in your soil, your plants are healthy enough with that manganese, they actually have better drought tolerance because they can shut down and conserve that water that's moving through the plant. And I've seen it. And we had an accidental test plot. Thanks to... It was actually in this field of buckwheat. We had two varieties of buckwheat. We separated it with a strip of grain sorghum. It just makes it easier to harvest. When we did that, we didn't realize, but we just created an accidental test plot for the next three years. You could see exactly where that grain sorghum was. The crops in that grain sorghum area took longer to mature because they had a harder time getting water.

And it was like, "Oh, how lucky are we to make that mistake?" So row spacing and population is restricted because we don't get moisture. And I hear this all the time. It's like, "We plant corn in our part of the world at 12,000 plants per acre, 12 to 14. Sunflowers, maybe 12 to 16,000. But we can't push it because by golly, we just don't have the moisture for it."

I have a great air seeder. I love my air seeder. It's a Bourgault. It's a Canadian manufacturer. The one thing I really love about my air seeder is it's got a big cart. I got a 650-bushel cart that I can put four different products on that are variable rate metered. So I can go out there, and high-seeded rate crops like peas and chickpeas, I can go out and drill 80 acres without having to refill. Lesser crops, I can literally just load it up in the morning and I can go drill all day. I can knock out 200 acres in a day and not have to refill. It's like this is nice. Because there were times with my old seed cart, I'd have to refill every 30 acres. I spent more time filling that stupid drill than I did in the field when I was out drilling field peas. It was really annoying. And it's like that's why we went to the cart and we got these different capabilities.

I'm also lazy. I don't like fixing things, and planters love to be fixed. I think they just crave that. I actually watched my neighbor the other year. He spent all winter rebuilding his planter. He went through it end to end. He went out and made a one pass. About halfway through that pass, something went bad and he had to go back and fix it. And I'm out there in my air seeder. It's a five-degree tilt coulter with packers on it. There's not gauge wheels or anything, and I just went out and I just go.

When I started thinking about planting things, it's like, "Oh, we have a planter. I'm going to have to drag that thing out of the weeds and I'm going to have to spend all winter. I'm going to have to change every chain on it. I'm going to have to change every bearing. I'm going to have to completely rebuild this thing." Then I'm like, "Why? I got an air seeder. I love that air seeder. I can do anything with that air seeder." The metering system on their air seeder is actually a cross auger and by every revolution of the full auger, they know exactly what that volume is. And as long as you know how many seeds are in that weight of that volume, it's actually a really accurate metering system and it's really gentle.

The first thing I actually tried to drill was sunflowers and we learned so much from that. That's the sunflower head that we use. I wouldn't recommend it, so that's why you don't... Well, you might recognize what it is, but I ain't saying what the name is.

And so we started drilling sunflowers and that's where we started learning these lessons. But our biggest issue is this piece right here. Pan evaporation rate. If you don't know what pan evaporation rate is, you're lucky. In the east of the hundredth meridian, they don't even really calculate pan evaporation because you have something called humidity.

Our part of the world during the summer, if we have humidity, 40%, it might be kind of average during this. If we have over 60%, we're all standing around going, "Man, it's sticky today." During the winter, we'll have 10% humidity. So clotheslines work well for us any time of year. I mean, it could be below freezing and you can hang clothes on the clothesline. And because our air is so dry, they will freeze and then dry.

Pan evaporation, what it is if you had an open pan sitting outside for the entire year and you kept water in it, how many inches of water could you evaporate out of that pan? We could evaporate six feet of water where we're at. You see this on the high plains. Now pan evaporation rate up in the Dakotas, because I've been asked to go be on panels after they show Kiss the Ground and talking about what Gabe Brown is doing, and so people are like, "Well, why don't you do that? We get that same rainfall." And I'm like, "Gabe's pan evaporation rate is 40. So one inch of rain for Gabe is two inches of rain for me." And there's some great research that happened at the research farm in Akron, Colorado by the ARS and RCS. And what they said in their research is, "It takes 75% more water to produce the same ton of biomass in Northeast, Colorado as it does in Bismarck, North Dakota." So water is our limiting factor.

And so I got to figure out how to conserve that. And the best way to conserve water is to run it through a plant. And if I have a canopy, that canopy will hold that moisture. It'll create that microclimate. And our climate, I probably should talk about a little bit more. Range in temperatures for us is anywhere from 20 below to 105. We'll actually break 105 on occasion. And the wind can blow sustained up to 40 miles an hour any day of the year. So we will hit a stretch during the growing season where it is 105 and the wind blows 30 miles an hour for three days straight. You live in a hairdryer some years, and it's rough on plants.

If you can close that canopy, those plants support each other, they protect each other, and they hold that moisture in there. There's some news research that I'm reading. The other thing they hold in there is the CO2 coming off the soil. So you actually have an increased CO2 inside that canopy. So the plants are more efficient with their photosynthesis. So we drill milo, dry beans, corn, sunflowers, oats, buckwheat. If I name the crop, it's running through our drill. Because I don't have a planter. I don't want to screw around with it.

The first year I raised sunflowers that I drilled them, I went out and I drilled them with the same population that we planted them. And you could walk across that field and not touch a single plant. And it's just like, "What in the heck is going on? Our population per acre is what we planted. I mean, everything came up. So why? This isn't making any sense." I beat my head against the wall. And so the next year, we increased our population to 18,000. And it was better, but it still wasn't good.

The third year that I was drilling sunflowers, I screwed up setting the drill. I made a mistake. I'll admit it. And the agronomist comes in and he goes, "I got good news and I got bad news." And it's like, "I'm an optimist. Give me the good news, then I can make something good enough to fix up the bad news." And he said, "Well, the good news is you have a beautiful stand of sunflowers." He's like, "Yeah."

"So what's the bad news?" And he goes, "You have 40,000 plants per acre." And it's like, "Oh crap. What do you do?" You have a good stand, but it's too much. Do you go tear it up? In our part of the world, absolutely not. If you've got a good stand, you let that thing roll. You just go. You have a bad stand, you'll let that thing go because the chances of getting more up is hard because of the lack in moisture.

It's like, "Okay, we're going to let this ride." It was on some ground that had never had sunflowers. If you don't know anything about sunflowers, tremendous root system. It is a great miner. There's research out there that shows that sunflowers can go down up to 20 feet and they'll cycle micronutrients that have gotten away up into the root zone and let things grow again. And we've always found our best crops follow sunflowers as long as we control evaporation, as long as we keep that ground covered. Because after you harvest sunflowers, the residue doesn't cover the ground. It's just stalks. So you have to go into some cover.

We put it out on this field. And so the first time you ever put sunflowers on a field, it'll be the best yield of sunflowers you'll ever have on that field because it's tapping this stuff from the previous who knows how many years things have been farmed.

I was out there harvesting. This was the last year my dad drove truck and we had two semis. And we were dropping it off at a local elevator. It's about a 30-mile run. And he would pull up to the field just in time to see me fill in the other truck. And so he was just on the road all day, and he called me and he's like, "Where in the heck are you finding all these sunflowers?" And I'm like, "Well, on the yield monitor, we're bumping 3,000 pounds an acre in spots." That's a hundred bushels an acre in this field that we thought about tearing up because our population was too high. And suddenly we're like, "Oh, there's something here. What are we missing?" And so this is when I really started digging into it.

And when you go out on 30-inch rows, six rows, 30 inches comes out to 16 feet. An acre is 16 1/2 feet by a half mile. So you do 30 rows for a half mile, you get three miles of furrow in one acre. Well, I go out with my air seeder on 12-inch spacings and I go a half mile. I have eight miles of furrow in the same area, so I'm still planting an acre, but I'm interacting with a lot more of that acre. So then, the simple ratio, 8/3, 2 2/3, 2.67 if you want the same. And I've explained this to people and they just look at me like, "Well, that just doesn't quite make sense."

We're out there, we're dropping 27,500 on corn, 35,000 on flowers. We're 50,000 on milo, a hundred thousand on beans. We close that canopy fast. And people are like, "I just don't see it." So it's like, "Okay, I need to go back to the drawing board literally." And so I'm like, "You know what? I'm going to put this out and I'm going to make this picture." And I am definitely an artist when it comes on... Okay, yeah, I struggle when it comes with a computer, drawing things. I struggle when it comes to a pencil drawing things. So if I go out and I plant and our seeding rate, we drop essentially a corn plant every 13 1/2 inches.

And notice this is back in the day when I had a planter. This is before I had GPS, so the rows aren't straight. Now I have GPS and all my rows are perfectly straight. But if I go out there when I'm planting and put a seed every 13 1/2 inches, that is 12,000 plant population. So what I did is I drew my 16 rows, and because it's an air seeder, it's random. It's like a shotgun. And I've learned that if you control your air pressure, I have line monitoring on every seed row on my air seeder, and so I can see that variation across the toolbar. As the temperature of the day changes, it changes how the density of that product is moving through that air seeder.

And if you're not adjusting your fan speed on your air seeder, you're not going to have good distribution. We learned this by accident because we were raising einkorn, and I was always plugging that stupid air seeder. What would happen is I had uneven distribution through my air stream, and so all the seed was going on the outside wings. Well, that einkorn has a rough husk on it, and it would plug the outside and then it would plug the center. And I never could figure it out until I got the line monitoring and it's like, "Oh, I have uneven distribution across the toolbar, significantly uneven."

Then we actually upgraded all of our distribution system. There's a company in Canada, Agri Stainless, does custom distribution systems out of stainless steel. They do beautiful work. The great thing about Canada is they make great equipment. The reason they make it great equipment is because they have all winter long to do nothing but think about how to make better equipment. And the welders that they got at Agri Stainless, they do beautiful, beautiful work, and it's very affordable.

But we upgraded that distribution system and suddenly I could get even distribution across my toolbar within 5%. The first year we did it, the agronomist comes in after counting population on wheat, and he goes, "That is the most even seeding of wheat I have ever seen out of an air seeder." He goes, "That was impressive." We always thought we had track marks behind the tractor and the seed cart on the air seeder. We didn't. We had uneven distribution so the wings were getting more seed than there was behind the tractor.

"And so it's tires, right?"

"No, it's how that stupid thing is going through that airflow." And thanks to the Agtron monitorings, I really got to get these companies to pay me money. Thanks to the monitoring that we have, we were able to determine that and then upgrade our equipment so it'll do it. So I go out there and I'm drilling this, and there's the same number of green dots over here as there are red dots over here. But the funny thing is, you look here, there's a couple of rows. There's not even a single plant that falls in them, not a single seed. It's because we're taking the same amount of seed and we're spreading it over there. So if you calculate it, we are 13 1/2 inches between seeds when we plant it. Over here, I'm 40 inches. That's why I could walk across that sunflower field across the row and not touch a single plant. It's because I got things spread out so far, and you can see it in here. You see these gaps.

Every plant has the same area on average because I have the same number of plants in that acre. It's just my distribution's different. So that plant starts to grow, and as that plant grows, it fills in. It comes in contact with its neighbor. Now, this is when it's planted. You can see why I can walk across there. There was gaps there. The gray part is it would fill in areas and it's like, "Oh, I'm capturing all the sunlight here." The sunlight's striking the ground. I'm evaporating moisture. It's just going straight up between those plants. It's not touching anything, nothing to slow it down.

Then I started thinking, "Okay, now, I want uniformity. I want to uniform spacing between plants." And so when I was planting it, I was at one seed every 13 1/2 inches. What if I drilled it and I want one seed every 13 1/2 inches. So I run the numbers and I come up with the exact same number that I got when I looked at ratio of how many feet of furrow I had in an acre. And it's like, "Oh, you come up with the same number with two different approaches. It generally means that number is actually right."

The funny thing is Stine Seed has done research on their narrow row spacing, and they came up with the exact same number. It's like, "Wow, professionals are actually agreeing with me," or, "I'm agreeing with professionals." I don't know. So if I go out there and I distribute the right number of dots, suddenly every row is getting seed. And if we let that grow... Oh, and the other thing is my spacing in here is 12 inches. My spacing inside the row, if it's uniform, it's an air seeder, it's not going to be uniform, but as long as we do a good job, it could be fairly close. It's going to be 13 1/2 inches in the row. It's going to be 12 inches between the row. That inch and a half is not going to make any difference.

That first presentation yesterday, the guy gets up there and he says, "The widest the roots spread out from the corn plant when it's uniform is six inches." So that means when there's a foot between plants, those roots are barely coming in contact with each other, even at this population when it's drilled. Now, if I take the same population and plant it, well then those roots come in competition with each other earlier.

What happens if we go back and we do our same thing that we did before? We're still comparing it to our planted because it's the same number of inches between each seed. But as that grows, in our part of the world, at corn harvest, you can drive past a planted corn field and you can see down the row because we don't generate enough moisture in our climate to really close the canopy fully. Now, I'm closing the canopy. And you could think about these dots as either the plant or the root system. I'm now interacting with a hundred percent of my soil in every acre. Where here, if I'm planting, the microbes that live between the rows, they haven't had anything to reach out to them and to feed them exudates. They haven't had a reason to work. And so here, I'm optimizing what I have.

I'm contacting a hundred percent of my soil with roots. I'm gathering a hundred percent of my light coming in so I'm getting that photosynthesis as much as I can. I'm making the full use of the nutrients that I'm putting down. I have all these benefits, and I'm closing that canopy to hold that moisture in there. And my neighbors are like, "Roy, you're crazy." But you know what? I was talking to a friend about what I was doing, and he laughed and I'm like, "Eric, what's the deal?" And he goes, "Yeah, Roy, you're crazy." He goes, "You're crazy all the way to the bank." And it's like, "You get it, Eric." And he's like, "Yeah, you're optimizing the system for our climate."

Now, if I was in Iowa, would I do this? I don't know. But if you think... Because of the disease issue. But what are they doing with 60-inch corn? They're separating the rows of corn, but they're still creating that canopy with other crops. They're doing the same thing. They're a hundred percent contact with the soil. They're getting a hundred percent of their photosynthesis. They're doing the same thing with wide rows that I'm doing with narrow rows, but it's the same concept. So that's why a crazy farmer from Northeast Colorado can come and be like, "Hey, this is what I'm doing and I don't want you to replicate what I'm doing, but I want you to think about what's going on when those plants are out there doing that. Are we getting the full efficiency of those plants?" 60-inch rows with cover in between, 12-inch rows with no cover. We're getting the same goals, but we're taking a different route to get there. So we have to think about what is our goal.

Frank Lessiter:

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. Do you want to make your fertilizer plan more efficient? SOURCE from Sound Agriculture optimizes the amount of crop nutrition supplied by the microbes in your soil providing 25 pounds of nitrogen and phosphorous per acre. It's a cost-effective alternative to live biologicals that you can throw in the tank and spray in season. If you want to unlock your crop's potential and increase return on investment, there's only one answer, SOURCE it. Learn more at And now, let's get back to the episode.

Roy Pfaltzgraff:

Seed treatments, it always drives me nuts. You buy a bag of seed and you open it up and it's not a natural color. It's blue or purple or red. And it's like, "Why do we got this crap on here?" Oh, well, you need that fungicide and you need that insecticide, and this way you have optimum conditions. That plant can survive any soil condition. And I look at him and I said, "Do you have a seed treatment for hot and dry? I don't have a problem with cold and wet. I have a problem with hot and dry." So I'm like, "I want untreated seed." And they're like, "No, we can't do that."

"Why not?" Oh, the excuses you get are wonderful. And then you find out what the truth is. The truth is their seed treater is bolted on the back of their seed cleaner, and there's no way something could go through the seed cleaner without going through the seed treater. "Turn off the seed treater."

"Well, we can't do that."

Luckily, I network well. I have a great family and my dad always tells stories about a guy he went to college with. The guy's name is Harry Stine. I don't know if you guys have ever heard of Harry. Harry's a real nice guy. He's done all right for himself. I think he's... Well, he is the richest farmer in the world, net worth around $21 billion is what Forbes said this last fall. So Harry's getting by. He runs this little seed company. And his son, Myron, went to college with my sister. And so I was talking to my Stine Seed dealer and I'm like, "Hey, you got to get me untreated seed." And he goes, "Roy, I've been trying to get untreated seed." And I said, "AJ, I'm going to call him." And he goes, "Roy, you go right on ahead." At the same time, he's like, "You'll get further than I ever will."

I went on their website and I wrote a nice little email saying, "My name's Roy Pfaltzgraff, and I would like to have a phone conversation with Myron Stine about untreated seed." And I was like, send it. And I'm like, "Nope, that's gone. That'll be the extent of that conversation." No, I didn't hear anything. A couple of weeks went by, I didn't hear anything. I was sitting at my computer in my very messy office and my phone rang and I looked at it and Adel, Iowa, I don't know anybody from Adel. I know somebody from Adel, Iowa. I answered it, and it's Myron Stine. And he is like, "What's the deal? We got this email that you wanted to talk." And I said, "Yeah, I want to talk." And of course, we did the initial family thing. How's your folks? He asked how's my sister doing all that stuff?

And I said, "Myron, I want untreated corn seed." And he goes, "Roy, why do you want untreated corn seed?" And I said, "Myron, your corn treatment is for cool wet soil conditions. It prevents those problems that come with cool wet soil." He's like, "Yeah." I said, "Is there any way you can use any less?" And he goes, "We use as little as we can. We use what the industry standard is." I'm like, "I want untreated corn seed." I said, "If you come up with a treatment for hot and dry, I'll take a double dose. But until that day, I want untreated corn seed."

"Well, let me see what I can do." Funny things happened with the president of the company calls to his underlings and say, "We need to figure out a way to do this."

The reason I started doing this is I have a friend, Russell Hedrick. I don't know if you guys have heard of Russell. He's a pretty good corn grower in North Carolina, a real nice guy. He has some access to some pretty good bourbon too. And I was talking with Russell once, and he is like, "I put sugar in furrow when I plant my corn." I'm like, "Sugar?" And he goes, "Yeah, table sugar." He goes, "They'll require you to provide a copy of your driver's license when you buy a pallet of it." That's in North Carolina. Colorado, they don't require a copy of your driver's license. They look at you funny. And if they look at you funny and they ask what are you doing with it? I found the best response is, "I'm a beekeeper and I needed to feed my bees." And they're like, "Okay."

Because if you say, "I'm a farmer and I'm going to put it in the ground when I plant," they're like, "Can we see your ID?" No, they don't do that. So I started. And with my old air seeder, I could only do 30 acres. With my old air cart, it was 250 bushel. I only could do 30 acres. I was out there drilling peas, and I got this idea. And I'm like, "Tomorrow..." Because I knew I was going to be drilling peas for the rest next week. It's like, "I'm going to make some simple syrup at home." And we were using a liquid inoculant, and we literally stand at the top of the seed cart with a garden sprayer, spraying on the seed, very accurate. Not accurate at all. Just standing there, spray it as it goes in. And I'm like, "You know what? Instead of adding water to my liquid inoculant, I'm going to just use simple syrup because that way I get some sugar on my seed and we're going to figure out how nutty Russell really is."

I did that. And people also say that you shouldn't put nitrogen down with legumes. We put 10 pounds in down. Because Dr. Christine Jones says for some reason, they don't understand why, if you put 10 pounds of nitrogen down, you kickstart the biology. Okay, well, she seems to be a pretty bright person. She's having a lot of success helping people. So we put down urea at the time. Now, we're AMS because we're finding that we need more sulfur than we need nitrogen until... I'm pro-sulfur diesel because I got free sulfur, then, I don't care if it melts statues when it rains.

I went out there and I drilled this field on the diagonal. And then because I like to be contrary to the world, I harvested it with the terraces. So if there's going to be a difference on your yield monitor, it's got to be obvious to show up when you start cutting across your samples. Most guys, they harvest with their test plots, so that way it's really obvious.

I'm like, "Yeah, screw it. I'm just going to... Because it's easier for me to run with a terrace." It's like a month later. I don't tell my agronomist what I do because I believe that I would influence his observations. So he shows up and he's like, "It is the weirdest thing on the 48-acre field. You stand at the corner of the field, and I swear there is a diagonal line through that field where you're planted." And I started laughing. He goes, "Okay, what'd you do?" It's like, "Okay, well, you want to know what I did? I put sugar on the seed." And he's like, "You did what?" And I explained to him what I did, and he's like, "That's interesting."

I went until I ran out of nitrogen fertilizer, and it's like, "Well, I'm going to run out of seed in just a little bit." I'm like, "Oh, another experiment." I can look and see what's my yield difference if I don't put down my 10 pounds of N. And then I'm going to go load up the drill and I'll load it up like normal, and that's just my regular stuff is on this side.

Now, this follows a creek bottom, and it's a gravel bottom creek. It's pretty rough down in here. But what's really interesting is you see where the sugar comes down, this area should look just like this. And it's like, "What in the heck is going on?" I mean, it's like, "Yep, drilled it on the diagonal." You can totally see nitrogen. Does it make a difference? Woo-hoo, it makes a difference. Sugar, does sugar make a difference? Sure the heck looks like sugar makes a difference. My cost per acre that year on sugar was 16 cents. You know what? Am I going to put sugar out there at 16 cents an acre? If it's wrong, it's the cheapest mistake I make. If it's right, it's guaranteed the best return on investment that you will ever have on an input.

Zero, 20 bushel. Peas, 15 bucks a bushel. 16 cents, good return? Oh, that's a good return. So then I'm like, "Okay, now what can I do with seed treatments? What can I do if I got untreated seed?" Because I have good soil. We are 60% sand, 20% loam, 20% clay. We have good soil. If it would rain every year, we can produce 150-bushel dry land corn if it rains timely in our part of the world. We've got good soils.

But what is that seed treatment? Because I'm trying to develop the bacteria and the fungi in my soil, and I know there's stuff on that to prevent rot, which is a fungus. How is that affecting things? So when I was talking to Myron, I was telling him about all this stuff and he goes, "Roy, let me see what I can do." So he's like, "We're going to get you your seed." So my corn seed shows up in a tote now. You know why? Because that way you can't return it. Because they're worried that if they have untreated seed in a bag and you return it, it's going to get mixed in. And I don't know if you guys know this, but seed companies reuse seed from year to year, the leftovers.

And so when they go to rebag it, then they'd be mixing stuff together, and yeah. So that's why they have to send it to me in a tote. I'm like, "That's fine. I'm cool with that. I can handle a tote. I got forklifts. We got a telehandler now even." And so it's funny. When you load that seed into the drill, that doesn't look right. It looks like corn. It's not red or blue or whatever color they're putting on your seed. So the first year I did it was that first picture when we got 4 1/2 inches of rain and I did 80 acres of untreated and 80 acres of treated.

It came up, and it's like, "That looks good." I started looking at the root systems. The root systems, there was a difference in the root systems. It didn't rain and then it all died. The funny thing is the untreated corn lived three weeks longer. This year, I was out spraying. We had milo or millet in that field this year, and I was out spraying at the spring, and it's like, I got volunteer corn. On 4 1/2 inches of rain, this corn plants that got this tall set a year and made viable seed on these little tiny cobs with three seeds on.

I go out into the part with the treated. Nothing. Wow, there's something going on here. So I got to hold a Myron again. I'm like, "Myron, I'm going to do this. But like last year I want treated and untreated, but I want four bags of treated and everything else untreated."

"Why?" I said, "I'm going to contact some companies. I'm going to get some products and I'm going to test it side by side, and I'm going to be scientific because I like to think I'm a bright guy on occasion." And I said, "I'm going to replicated plots, and my air seeder is 32-feet wide. So if I go a half mile down and a half mile back with my 32-foot wide air seeder, I got a four-acre plot." And thanks to GPS, I can just run over so many and do it.

I got out in the field with the first pass and it dawned on me. It's like, "Oh, I need to write something down to keep everything straight." So I'm out in the field making these notes up of figuring out where my treatments are going to be, and that way were replicated evenly and I can keep track of it when I harvest. And so I did that. I had three replications, four acres each. I tell companies, "Oh, I would be more than happy to test varieties for you but it's not going to be a stupid a hundred-foot plot." If we're going to do it, we're going to do a test, and we're going to put it in the field and we're going to let it do what it does. Because there's too much variance in soil, and if I have a big enough plot, it wipes out the variance, and I don't have to know fancy math to make it right or make it look right or whatever.

I did this. My treatments were the standard commercial seed. It was red. Then I had a compost liqueur from a company. I was the first farmer that ever got their hands on it. They figured out a way to spin it down and so that way it's a straight liquid and I could apply it to the seed. It wasn't designed to be a seed treatment, but by golly, we're going to give it a shot.

I did eight strains of a fungal spore, mycorrhizal fungal spores. Mycormax is the name of the company. If you order the stuff, tell the guy that you heard about it from me. That stuff is cool. A micronutrient designed for root elongation. Believe it or not, this is an Amway product of all things. But I'll try it because they gave it to me. If I don't have to pay for it, I'm willing to use it.

And then I went and bought a combination of a biological and micronutrient from a seed treatment company who I've had a very bad experience with. And then I just have untreated because by golly, let's see what it does by itself. And so each one of the non-commercial seed treatments, so all of these, we have a problem with wireworm. So I called some buddies of mine that run an organic supply company and said, "Hey, I got wireworm. I want a biological organic control for wireworm." They poked around and they found me something. So each one of these were treated with something for wireworm because I know the wireworm was not going to affect this, so I wanted to make it so it doesn't affect all of it.

I had great control with that organic product. I went out and I drilled all the 90-acre field in one day. So it's not like there was a three-day advantage for one over the other. I just like, "We're going to go out there and we're going to knock it out there."

I had tubs with the different treatments stacked on top of my air cart. And so when it was time to change, I'd throw an empty tub underneath there to dump out what was left and I'd close it up and I would dump in the new one. Since it's all the same seed, I didn't have to recalibrate. It's like, "This works." So initially, I went out and I dug up some plants, and I flagged. Each flag is a different color. So that way we can kind of keep track of what the different seed treatments are. And the seed treatments will always be in the same order in these slides, so that way you can keep track of what's going on.

This is standard seed treatment. This is the compost product. This is the mycorrhizal spore. This is the one for root elongation. Notice the handle has to be in the picture. This is the blend, and this is untreated. So we can see the differences straight out of the gate. Now, as we go through this, the best and the worst. The worst was the standard seed treatment. You can still see that red seed. See how bare those roots are? This is the mycorrhizal pack. Holy mackerel, I have never seen a root system develop like that. It is crazy how that stuff put rhizosheaths on.

Then, I had a really rough year this last year. A lot of personal stuff I had to deal with, so I didn't get out there as often as I wanted. But I went out there, and this is right at tassel. And once again, standard seed treatment, compost, mycorrhizal... Oh no, this isn't. This after it hailed. We got a real bad hailstorm on this. Mycorrhizal, root elongation pack, untreated, and I took it from two different angles because you can definitely see a difference from the two different angles what you're getting.

Once again, we got... I feel bad about this picture here. But this is the treated corn and this is that mycorrhizal pack, and this is just straight out of the ground. Just such a huge difference, especially when that rhizosheath just keeps extending with that.

This is just after tassel and we had a bunch of legislators showing up and I thought, "I'm going to go dig up some things because I'm pretty sure they've never seen roots in their lives." So I dug it up and once again, standard seed treat, compost, mycorrhizal, root elongation pack, untreated. That mycorrhizal, that root system was ridiculous. I have never seen something... And the fine root hairs in there, the only time I've ever seen fine root hairs that much in our part of the world is my parents have a sump pump in their basement. And the tree roots that get in there was the only thing that come anywhere close to the amount of branching that I saw on that. And it's like, "Holy mackerel. This is what everybody's being told that they have to do. This is better. Untreated is actually one of the better ones."

I was talking to Lance Gunderson and Lance is like, "Because something doesn't work, it doesn't mean it actually doesn't work. It means you just don't need it." Because our soils are so healthy, I'm not needing these biologicals. Now, the mycorrhizal one, I do need. So I went out. It stopped raining on August 1st. I had a yield potential up to 200 bushel out there. I harvested these test plots. And the difference from the highest to the lowest test plot in yield was 12 bushels. That's it. Not 12 bushels per acre, 12 bushels. Well, within the standard of error that you would introduce on something like that.

I'm like, "There's got to still be a story there. There's got to be more to it." So test weights, moisture. You know that commercial, it dried down the fastest. It was the first one to run out of water because it had the smallest root system.

I looked at protein, protein and wheat. To make protein and wheat, you have to stress it. And it makes sense because the protein in a seed is the endosperm. The fluff, the starch is extra. That's the fat. So if that plant doesn't have the ability to produce fat, it's going to be high protein. So this one, it looks like the worst. It actually tells me, "If it would've rained, it would've been the best because it had the best potential and it held on the longest." But water was our limiting factor no matter what.

But the other thing is untreated. You know what? I don't need to put anything on my seeds. I just need naked seed. So to do this, you have to figure out what works for you. And so you always hear guys that are like, "Oh, I bought this one biological and it worked great for me, and somebody else tried it and it didn't do a dang thing."

Well, it's because in each circumstance, the soil's different. And so you got to figure out what works for you and what will ultimately return the best. Now, we're out of time, essentially, so if you guys need to take off, go ahead. I'm willing to finish because I don't think they need the room.

Our thing is residue. We need as much residue as possible to maintain moisture. So I try to do as much difference as I can when it comes to harvesting crops to maintain residue. I use a stripper header. This is actually stripping milo. This is milo stubble after it's been stripped. This is white milo. This is proso millet. I use a pod sealer called Spodnum so that proso can dry down naturally. It takes longer for it to dry down. It's slower. But I see at least a three-pound gain in test weight because that plant dried down naturally instead of being terminated. Because when you terminate it, you kill it. That seed does not go to full maturity correctly. That plant is rushed. It runs out of groceries to finish it.

Why is moisture retention important? University of Nebraska Extension looked at corn residue versus baling stover and how much moisture you retained between those two. And they looked at the amount of snow you captured. They looked evaporation. They looked at all the different factors. They just didn't look at evaporation. And they found 3 1/2 to 4 inches greater moisture when you have better residue.

In our part of the world, people are like, "Do you Shelbourne milo? You're going to lose two bushel. Two bushel, 10 bucks." Will I pay $10 for 3 1/2 to 4 inches of rain? Oh, in a heartbeat. That is a quarter of my rainfall. That's a quarter of the precipitation that I get to farm with, disappears because I don't have residue. So we had a neighbor, gave bad directions to his custom cutter, and they went out and they started combining our milo this year. It was 16 moisture. It's going to really cost the guy because I had his specialty market lined up.

And he cut 20 acres before we noticed and got them stopped. I called my friends at CSU and I said, "Hey, you got some soil moisture probes?" And they're like, "Why?" And I told them what happened and they're like, "Yes, we do." So they came out and they put a soil moisture probe in where it had been cut and the guy was shaving the ground. And then we put one out in Shelbourne residue for milo that was thigh-high. And I said, "How long can we put those out?" And they're like, "We'd them out there for at least six months." And I said, "Well, how long can I put them out?" And they said, "Two years." It's like, "Yeah, let's go two years."

Because not only does our residue affect the crop that we're going to raise this next year, that crop is going to be shorter, so it's going to affect the crop that we raise the following year. So we're actually going to generate some data on how much does this really change when we maintain residue. The other advantage of it is when you harvest things with a Shelbourne, it's clean. This is proso being straight out of the... This is field run.

If you've ever harvested proso, generally swathed and picked up. You usually can't see from the semi to the traps. There's so much dirt in the air. This stuff's clean. I can clean a semi-load of this because I run it through a Shelbourne and my clean-out will fit in a 55-gallon drum. My clean-out is less than 1%. I take this to a food company, they call me and they comment, "Wow, your stuff is clean. Why is your stuff so clean?" It's because I raise food. I don't raise commodities.

And when you raise food, you want to make it. So would you feed it to your family if it was full of rocks and dirt? I wouldn't. So this is the kind of stuff I do, but it's because I do different harvesting methods. And by doing that, I mean that Spodnum is 20 bucks an acre. My dockage used to be 2%. My dockage is now two-tenths of a percent. I pay for that and that alone, plus I get to save the residue. So when we do different harvesting methods, it really can affect the quality of what we're putting in the bin. I got higher test weight. I got lower FM. And then, man, my Shelbourne. The reason I started trying to figure out a way to Shelbourne millet because we had 80-bushel millet one year, and I had 77 20 combines before we got a new combine. I was picking it up off the ground.

And I was going three-quarters of a mile an hour. And I only could make three-quarters of a round before I had to go dump. It was a miserable harvest. It was the first year we had a Shelbourne and I had harvested 60-bushel wheat at five miles an hour. And then I went to three-quarters of a mile an hour. It's like there's got to be a better one. So pod sealer, it's a product that's developed for beans and I use it to change my harvesting methods to make better, quality stuff.

Frank Lessiter:

Many thanks for turning into my No-Till Farmer Influencers and Innovators podcast series over the past five years. In this series that got started in January of 2019, we've talked firsthand with over 120 folks who have been influencers and innovators in the world of no-tillage. Quite frankly, we've run out of no-till influencers and innovators to interview for this podcast series. As a result, we're going to take a break. So this is the last of 126 episodes in this series.

Since January of 2019, we've sat down with 143 folks from 27 States, England, and the five Canadian provinces of Nova Scotia, Ontario, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Alberta. In addition, we've shared over 80 little-known no-till facts in these podcasts over the past five years.

To replace this series of podcasts, I'm launching a twice a month blog on the No-Till Farmer website that is appropriately called, Frankly Speaking.

Starting next month, I'll be sharing my observations on what is happening today with no-till, and taking the issue with some of the tillage, environmental, climate, and political concerns that I see going on in this market.

To read this blog twice a month, please go to the No-Till Farmer website at and type in, Frankly Speaking. By the way, all 126 of these podcasts are listed on the No-Till Farmer website for you to replay at your leisure.

Many thanks to SOURCE from Sound Agriculture, the sponsor of this episode, as well as all our other sponsors who have made this podcast series possible over the last five years. And many thanks to you and other growers, educators, and suppliers for tuning in and listening to these twice a month podcasts over the last five years.