Plenty of valuable ideas that you can use to make no-till even more profitable in your operation came out of presentations by eight veteran growers at last winter’s Northwest Direct Seed Intensive Cropping Conference in Pasco, Wash. These farmers rely on no-till to turn available moisture into higher, more profitable yields.
1. Watch Seeding Methods. Pay close attention to seeding rates, depth and uniformity. “Yields are often cut back because the seed was placed too deep or at too low of a rate to allow for proper stooling,” says John Aeschliman of Colfax, Wash. “Get the seed planted in the dirt! It doesn’t do well if it is planted in the residue, especially in lower rainfall areas.”
2. Change Seeding Depth. When Dale and Gary Galbreath first started direct seeding, they placed seed at the same depth as when seeding conventionally.
Then the Ritzville, Wash., brothers found no-tilling at a shallower depth offsets the colder ground temperature. This gives quicker emergence and helps get the crop established earlier.
3. More Bio-Tech. Nathan and Steve Riggers, no-tillers at Nezperce, Idaho, believe introduction of herbicide-resistant wheat, barley, peas and lentils would definitely accelerate the conversion to direct seeding in the Northwest.
4. Narrow Down Rows. The Galbreath brothers narrowed the row widths on their drill from 10 to 7 1/2 inches. This lets them use higher plant populations and provides better weed competition. Narrower rows are particularly valuable with spring-seeded wheat.
5. Spread Straw And Chaff. Dale Galbreath believes this is not only critical with no-till, but also with conventional tillage. Efficient spreading evens out weed and volunteer weed concentrations, resulting in higher yields.
6. Try New Equipment. Russ Zenner of Genessee, Idaho, used a 30-foot John Deere 1850 air seeder with 10-inch row spacing to no-till spring wheat, spring barley, peas, lentils, garbanzo beans and mustard.
Spring grains drilled with this system required another fertilizer application to provide needed nutrients since the 1850 air seeder only has starter fertilizer capability. However, Zenner plans to find a way to add deep-banding capabilities before fall.
7. Time To Commit. For 50 years, Karl Kupers and his father have followed a traditional wheat and summer-fallow rotation near Harrington, Wash. Their 5,600 acres of leased ground receives only 10 to 12 inches of annual rainfall.
In 1995, Kupers toured the no-till operation of Dwayne Beck at Pierre, S.D. After that trip, he asked landlords to commit to a seven-year trial of intense no-till rotations.
“This time line was based on seven years of transition payments providing them with an insurance policy to be used when we failed and I expected to have some failures,” he says. “The second reason for seven years was to give no-till a chance to achieve its positive soil-quality and water-saving properties.”
8. Diversify Your Rotations. Kupers finds diversified rotations spread the risk to single-commodity cycles and extends equipment and harvest equipment pressures to 60 days for seeding and 90 days for harvesting.
“This reduces my future capital expenditures,” he says. “I can capitalize on a no-till system vs. a conventional system, a low-horsepower vs. a high-horsepower tractor, one combine vs. two combines for 3,200 acres and no longer need any tillage tools.”
9. Stretch Out Rotations. David Carlton has gone to three- and four-year no-till rotations near Dayton, Wash., on ground that receives 17 to 20 inches of moisture.
The three-year rotation includes spring barley, dry peas and winter wheat. The four-year rotation includes spring barley, dry peas (or spring wheat), winter wheat and a burned re-crop of winter wheat.
“Before we were no-tilling, we were not in any kind of rotation,” says Carlton. “We summer-fallowed with wheat, dry peas and had some annual winter wheat. What we planted depended on the farm program and our acreage bases.”
10. No-Till’s Future? Carlton says this will depend on the expanded use of no-till rotations. “Without that you are sunk before you even start,” he says. “The future of direct seeding in our area is going to be dependent on being able to seed crops through high residue without having to burn the stubble off. As a result, rotations will be vital.”
11. The “Green Bridge.” Aeschliman recommends paying close attention to the “Green Bridge.” “Get the green volunteer and weeds dead two or three weeks prior to planting,” he says. “Don’t be fooled as the pathogens are there waiting for the new plant to start so they can hop on and ride for another year.”
12. Timing Is Critical. Make sure you spray herbicides, seed and other chemicals in the proper window of opportunity to ensure good results. “Mother Nature may still kick your tail occasionally anyway, but at least it won’t be because you were too late or too early with an operation,” maintains Aeschliman.
13. Spray And Wait. Dale Galbreath says another key to getting a healthy spring-seeded crop stand is to wait two weeks to no-till after applying Roundup. While waiting longer would be better, he recognizes that the logistics of the growing season will normally prevent further waiting.
14. Major Northwest Concerns. Roger Miller finds weed control is a primary concern with direct seeding. Goatgrass and cheatgrass are major concerns and rotations and herbicides offer the best control.
“We’ve had to change our thinking in the area of chemicals,” says the Colfax, Wash., no-tiller. “A good chemical program will determine your success in direct seeding. You need to be willing to put additional finances into a direct-seeding program. Chemicals that work will become one of the keys to a successful direct-seeding program.”
15. Limit Chemical Runoff. Since no-till is designed to fully use all water and fertilizer each year, Kupers says there should be no groundwater contamination.
Water erosion will be reduced and eventually controlled with intense no-till rotations. Residue management can be achieved via rotations without burning stubble. Disease and weed control will be shifted to rotations with use of fewer or less costly chemicals. Drought can be overcome with improved soil tilth and water-holding capacity due to long-term no-till.
16. Fight Wind Erosion. Kupers found wind erosion dropped to zero on the day he no-tilled winter wheat into spring wheat residue. Over the past few years, Kupers has grown to 3,200 acres of intense no-till rotations that include 10 crops.
17. Fully Utilize Moisture. Dale Galbreath credits direct seeding with allowing him to make the move to annual cropping. Regardless of the extensive number of needed trips, summer-fallowing disturbs the ground and causes precious moisture loss.
“We believe one out of 10 years we could have a freeze out in winter wheat,” he says. “There is the risk of seeding in a dust mulch and hoping your wheat will emerge before a rain that would cause crusting.
“I believe there’s an average of six to eight operations used to make summer-fallow work in our area. With no-till, we simply spray and seed, eliminating extra trips.”
18. Adjust Soil Profile. “It takes three to five years of continuous direct seeding to get your soil profile adjusted so direct seeding will work at its best,” Aeschliman says.
19. Match World Markets. Kupers says no-till rotations enable him to take full advantage of global cropping opportunities. “I am always ready to seed any crop the marketplace wants,” he says.
20. Perseverance Does Pay. Aeschliman believes you need to start small with no-till. He urges farmers to be willing to throw whatever amount of money it takes to make no-till work. Test no-till on a small acreage while you keep farming the rest of your land the same way.
“This way if you make a mistake, which you will do sooner or later, it won’t `eat your lunch’ and end your farming days permanently,” he says.
21. Stretch Your Labor. “As our costs continue to rise and competition in the marketplace increases, we are going to need a system of farming that will allow us to farm more land with the same amount of labor or the same amount of land with less labor,” Aeschliman says. “Direct seeding has the potential to do both.”
22. Select Right System. Tim Rust is a partner in a 12,900-acre family operation near Echo, Ore. While they direct seed 2,000 acres each year, they don’t feel no-till is always the best answer.
On some dryland ground, they combine summer-fallow and chemical fallow with a wheat rotation. While they like chemical fallow, conventional fallow lets them cover more ground during fall seeding to get wheat up early before moisture moves too deep into the ground.
“Weeds are the biggest drawback of using chemical fallow,” says Rust. “Russian thistle is our main problem weed and it is becoming harder to control which makes using chemical fallow less desirable. Yet chemical fallow lets us deal with extremely wind-erodible ground.”
23. The Stubble Challenge. Still another drawback with chemical fallow is the stubble. “We’ve tried shredding, harrowing, discing lightly and leaving it stand,” says Rust. “A harrow on a hot day seems to work well with chaff spreaders on the combines being a real must.”
24. Eliminate Costly Tillage. Zenner sees two reasons for eliminating tillage equipment in his 2,800-acre operation. “For my farm to be competitive with other dryland crop regions of the world, I’m going to have to improve my labor and equipment efficiency by going over the ground fewer times,” he says.
“In addition, the current tillage-based crop production system is causing a loss in soil quality that will make profitable crop production more difficult.”
25. Have Patience. The Riggers believe patience is critical for no-till success. By waiting to seed, they find improved moisture, soil health and fertilizer placement compensate for a slightly delayed seeding date.
26. Three Reasons To No-Till. Carlton credits no-till with boosting water storage. No-till also improves water-use efficiency, which leads to higher yields and saves time and money by requiring fewer trips over the field. There is also less soil erosion because of annual cropping and fewer tillage trips.
“The first two equal more profit in the short-term,” he says. “The last one is more long-term in that it sustains the land for future generations to farm.”
27. Flexibility Really Pays. Miller says staying flexible with production of winter wheat, spring wheat, spring barley and peas has allowed his family operation to maintain a strong production base.
“We have some fields with a three-year rotation with other fields rotated according to field conditions and production returns,” he says. “Rainfall has a large role in our rotation and varies from 18 to 22 inches.”
28. Balance Soil Nutrients. Aeschliman says more isn’t always better with no-tilling. “Be sure you are working with a fertilizer supplier who understands and agrees with what you are trying to accomplish,” he says. “Make sure this is someone who will give you the agronomic help you need to succeed.”
29. Place Fertilizer At Seeding. The Galbreath brothers place starter with the seed when drilling, then deep band the remaining fertilizer with a Yielder L series