In the past 10 years, Bob Schrock switched his farm in South Central Kansas from a full tillage cattle grazing enterprise to a no-till, grain-only system while pioneering the successful introduction of a new crop, winter canola.
When Iowan Bill Carpenter moved to Northwest Oklahoma 23 years ago, he brought along with him a Midwestern mindset. He blazed a new trail for area farmers by growing corn and soybeans in a rotation with wheat and using no-till practices on his farm north of Enid.
During the past 10 years, Bob Schrock switched his farm in South Central Kansas from a full tillage cattle grazing enterprise to a no-till, grain-only system while pioneering the successful introduction of a new crop, winter canola.
“I’ve been experimenting with six crops (wheat, canola, corn, milo, soybeans and sesame) in different rotations, but I have found that a wheat-canola rotation fits best in our area, especially with the weather conditions we’ve had recently,” he said.
At one time he ran as many as 7,000 head of stocker cattle annually, but he has since left the cattle business entirely.
“I could not get my no-till crops to the level I was satisfied with by grazing them,” he said. He adds, “I can teach someone to ride a combine or a tractor, and that’s a lot easier than to get someone to feed and doctor cattle when it’s over 100 degrees outside.”
These days, he is generating more revenue from the same farm with less labor. He runs a thriving custom seeding, scouting and harvesting business that is helping pay for his investment in specialized air-seeding and harvesting equipment.
He doesn’t miss the cattle and can’t imagine going back to his old ways, joining the growing ranks of farmers who describe the shift away from traditional tillage as “life changing.”
No-till came late to the Plains after first taking off in the Corn Belt.
When “Iowa farm boy” Bill Carpenter moved to Enid, Okla., 23 years ago, he recalls that no-till and rotational cropping were virtually unknown in the area. He soon took on the reputation of a maverick. After all, not many farmers can say they’ve made headlines around the world for colliding with a stampeding elephant — the roadside pachyderm had escaped from a traveling zoo — or provided part of a field to a local funeral home to create a “green” cemetery where the deceased are buried in a simple linen shroud.
Farming-wise, Carpenter was among the first in the area to forego continuous wheat and begin instead a no-till rotation of corn and beans that even extension specialists said couldn’t be done. “I couldn’t understand why,” he recalls. “I just knew we could do it.”
Carpenter proved the naysayers wrong. Last year, he harvested a “tremendous wheat crop,” followed by double-crop soybeans. Despite a punishing summer, yields on the second crop, while low (in the range of 10 to 15 bushels to the acre) grossed nearly $175 an acre (bean prices were roughly $15 a bushel at the time). He also grew some corn that was “fair at best,” but benefited from equally high demand and a strong basis price. This winter, wheat that’s been no-till drilled into corn stubble looks good, despite dry conditions.
He credits crop rotation and the proper management of tillage, crop residue, soil liming and fertilization with the ability to succeed even in a challenging environment. For example, he harvests wheat with a stripper header that removes only the heads. “It leaves the stubble taller, so it protects and shades the ground,” he said.
Carpenter went on to help found the Oklahoma Pioneer No-till Association (now operating under the auspices of Oklahoma State University) that encouraged a transformation of farming practices across the Great Plains that continues today.
“In our local area, the amount of farmers going no-till has skyrocketed,” Schrock said. “It’s all because of moisture conservation and labor savings. Herbicide costs have also come down from years ago. It improves your quality of life — it’s amazing how much more time you have.”
Still, the switch isn’t without trade-offs. “It’s an ongoing learning process,” Schrock said. “If you’re not all in and all focused, it will hurt you financially. You need to be up for the challenge.”
Bill’s son Wayne Carpenter, who along with his brother Ken has taken over much of the day-to-day farming from his dad, observes that ironically the original hotbed of no-till — the Midwest and Northern Plains — is in some cases reverting back toward more tillage.
“Where they get a lot of rainfall, it doesn’t work as well,” he notes. “But in the drought we are having, it’s perfect, because any time we do get moisture, we’re holding onto it better.”
Learning, growing, building character
New trends in recent years have included a push to re-integrate livestock grazing with crop production and to plant cover crop “cocktails” made up of multiple species.
Neither Schrock nor Carpenter will endorse those ideas, saying any advances need to be weighed against their suitability to the local microclimate. (Intensive cover cropping is also proving questionable in Northeastern Colorado and Western Nebraska, due to high water requirements.)
The weather is already testing them like never before. “We farm across 16 miles, but last year we had hail on every acre,” Schrock recounted. “We still had some 80-bushel wheat even with a 40 percent yield loss. But that was a tough one to deal with.”
Good rains late last spring convinced him to double-crop aggressively last summer. “It looked really good for the first three weeks,” he said. Then the region was hit by what meteorologists call a “flash-drought.” The summer crops failed, and since then it’s been so dry some of the fall-planted crops have yet to emerge.
“You can’t do anything about it,” he said. “I tell myself it builds character.”