It's not that Ray McCormick wants to deal with vast amounts of water each growing season. The Vincennes, Ind., no-tiller really doesn’t have a choice.
McCormick no-tills 1,800 acres of specialty white corn and soybeans in an 80-percent, river-bottom operation. The remaining 20 percent of the operation covers rolling hills with high knolls.
No-till is McCormick’s key weapon in overcoming the wetness of the river-bottom environment.
“It’s treacherous,” McCormick says of his situation. “It floods often. I’ve been flooded out of four corn crops the last three years, so I deal a lot with no-tilling into wet conditions.”
Standing water often covers much of McCormick’s land. He’s often left drilling into muddy, wet conditions after water subsides. McCormick, who calls himself the best wet no-tiller in the country, handles the situation by moving from field to field, planting selected areas.
“If I’ve got a 15-, 20- or 30-acre spot out in a 100-acre field that is dry enough to plant, I get it done,” explains McCormick. “Then I head down the road with my 16-row planter folded up and get to the next spot. We go from spot to spot planting, hitting the high knolls first. You have to go from field to field to get that early start.
“If you’re no-tilling, why wait?” he asks. “When is it too wet to plant? When you can’t pull the planter across the ground.”
McCormick calls in a fertilizer company after several patches are planted. Detailed field maps are faxed in to provide directions to areas that need treatment and fertilizer analysis.
“I would rather plant 250 acres of these patches, fax the fertilizer company maps and when it looks like rain, call them in,” he says. “No-till corn is not as critical in getting over the top of the ground with a fertilizer applicator. I’ve spread fertilizer on corn spiking out of the ground several times and not seen much negative impact.”
Early starts aren’t always easy for McCormick, who has seen the devastation caused by flooding.
“Three years ago, I planted the river bottoms and the river came out to 18 feet and took approximately 60 percent of the crop,” says McCormick. “As soon as it dried back out, we went in and no-tilled all those spots and put all that back together. Before the crop got out of the ground, the river came out and took 100 percent of it.”
Beats Conventional Tillage. McCormick went right back into the river bottoms with his John Deere no-till planter and replanted the crop a third time. If he had employed conventional tillage, McCormick says he would have had to work the ground up twice, then replanted amid mounting frustration. No-till eases compaction even if planting must be repeated.
“At least with no-till, it’s not nearly as big a tragedy when you’re going to go back in there and re-plant,” he says. “A lot of people say this is where no-till really won’t work. In my area and my experience, no-till is best adapted for these conditions because you’re staying off of those fields except for a big piece of equipment that is making a very shallow pass. And we’re just disturbing the top inch or 3/4 inch of soil.”
McCormick adds Kernel Guard to all corn seed during wet, cold conditions. He uses a Martin row cleaner in front and Martin closing wheels in back on each row to ensure solid stands in poorly drained soils.
“They allow me to go through these super wet conditions,” he says of residue removal and seedbed preparation. “The sun also has the opportunity to warm up the soil and dry it out.”
Even as he selectively targets planting areas to establish an early planting date with white corn, McCormick finds himself waiting an extra two to three weeks to harvest.
“A lot of times, I’m just like an island of corn on the hill while everyone else is harvested and ready to sow wheat,” he says. “With white corn, the drydown is slow and you can’t start picking white corn until it’s dropped to 22-percent moisture.”
For soybeans in the spring, McCormick uses a pre-emergence burndown applied with a sprayer on the back of his drill and tanks mounted on his John Deere 4840. The drill helps knock down weeds to get the burndown herbicide on the plants.
“For no-till soybeans, my experience is that nothing matches the performance of post-emergence spraying for weed control in Indiana and southern Illinois,” McCormick says. “With a lot of rainfall, you get a lot of different weed species coming up that you have to specifically attack. Post-emergence does that.”
Wildlife vs. No-Till
In a perfect world, Vincennes, Ind., no-tiller Ray McCormick could strike a lasting balance between wildlife habitats and his no-till operation.
For now, he’s doing the best he can with programs designed to protect streams and waterways with grasses, trees and buffers to reduce runoff and erosion.
“When your farm reflects the care and the interest you have in natural resources, to me, that’s the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow,” says McCormick. “We can make an investment that will pay off in extra resource protection for future generations.”
McCormick offers these ideas to no-tillers who want to improve water quality and wildlife habitat in conjunction with no-till and programs such as the continuous sign up under the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and the Wetland Reserve Program (WRP).
- Reseed native prairie grasses in strips or stands as nesting spots for birds. The large, fluffy seeds need to be planted with grass drills after existing weeds and grasses have been eliminated using warm-season grasses.
- “You’d be surprised how this can build a very positive relationship with landlords and give you the ability to get a foothold with other landlords who are interested in the same values,” McCormick says.
- Use 30- to 60-foot buffer strips along stream banks. “Under the CRP continuous sign up, you can be paid cash payments that are based on cash rent values of soil productivity in your area,” he says.
- Plant a fence row of trees and shrubs to limit erosion and create a wildlife habitat. McCormick is paid for two such wildlife corridors that cut through a no-till field.
- Use drop boxes to control water levels and create food supplies for waterfowl. In the spring, the sun warms shallow water in flooded fields and causes an explosion of small invertebrates that feed on no-till residue. Waterfowl then feed on invertebrates in the shallow water.
- Return nonproductive fields in river bottoms that are prone to frequent flooding to original wetlands through funding programs with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the WRP program with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.