Above photo: Members of the Marion Snell family pose against their Amity air seeder amidst hectic preparations for weather-delayed sorghum planting and wheat harvesting in early June. From left are young Mitch Snell in the arms of family helper Freddie Hernandez, followed by (left to right) Matt, Pam, Joy and Marion Snell.
The Snell family knows all about wind erosion and sand-burned crops.
Marion and Joy Snell, and son and daughter-in-law Matt and Pam, farm 4,000 sandy blow-prone dryland acres from their headquarters near Ackerly, Texas, on the Southern High Plains, and another 2,000 acres 170 road miles to the north near Arney in the Texas Panhandle.
But if you want to get the Snell family stirred up, just tell them farmers on the Southern High Plains can’t do any better than wind-eroded fields devoid of organic matter and fence lines, field ends and road ditches blown full of drifted sand.
Or, try telling them that no-till farming won’t work here.
Scooping Sand Into a Red Wagon
Having farmed in the Southern Plains since 1970, Marion and Joy have seen all too many sandstorms.
“I remember the drought of the 1950s. At 5 years old I was shoveling blown-in sand from my mother’s house with a grain scoop and hauling it out in a red wagon,” Marion says.
This Amity air seeder and SD-60 cart, pulled by this tracked Case IN 535 tractor, are used for planting both grain sorghum and wheat on the Snell farming operation near Ackerly, Texas, in the Southern High Plains. Despite sandy soils, drought and high temperatures, the Snell family is finding success in no-tilling wheat and grain sorghum.
Joy grew up just 12 miles from where they live today. They would turn the plates over on the dinner table in their home to keep the dirt out of them, then grab them and eat quickly before the plates filled up with grit.
“In 1982 we ran the sand fighter (a type or rotary hoe for breaking up crusty soil) over cotton 13 times and still had to plow it up and go back with sunflowers because the sand had burned the cotton off,” Marion recalls. “You couldn’t enjoy a good rain here for worrying about what was to follow — blowing sand and running the sand fighter.”
Farming in this region in the 1940s and 1950s included rotating grain sorghum with cotton, Marion says. Vagaries of agriculture policy starting in the 1960s favored cotton over all else, and much farmland here was virtually “cottoned out” with little in the way of rotation for 50 years or more.
Today, the Snells farm in southeast Dawson, northern Martin and Borden counties in the southern High Plains, as well as in northeastern Castro County in the Panhandle. All of their farms are dryland no-tilled. They grew their last cotton crop in 2010 and don’t think they will grow cotton again.
“After the fiasco of sand fighting and still losing a cotton crop, we began experimenting with no-tilling in 1983. I was tired of the land eroding away in the wind and rain. I wanted my grandkids to have the land better than we found it. We were in a sad state, as far as what we had done to the land in the last 50 years,” Marion observes.
Try and Try Again
The Snells initially failed at no-till, but tried again in 2007. Matt says they made a “big mistake’ when they plowed residue to plant cotton and opened the way for more blowing.
With an unusual rain delay in planting following multiple years of drought, the Snell family was busily checking bearings and replacing 18-inch discs on their 60-foot Amity air seeder in early June while waiting for fields to dry sufficiently for sorghum planting and wheat harvesting.
“We got the cotton bug and fell off the no-till wagon — maybe it was peer pressure, he recalls. “With cotton, we always plowed. We had a perfectly good John Deere no-till planter sitting there, and we could have no-tilled into wheat, but we didn’t. I can’t remember a good reason why now.”
They wanted to try no-till again in 2011 — a tough go with only 3 inches of rain all year. Finally, they successfully no-tilled in 2012 and haven’t looked back since.
“Anytime you try something, you make mistakes. We sure made some, but we’re moving ahead,” Marion says.
Believing high-residue crops were essential, the Snells began with wheat, hoping to build soil organic matter. They included grain sorghum in the rotation for the same reason. Their immediate goal is to build soil carbon, after this year’s wheat harvest, using cover crops.
Another reason to accumulate enough residue was to help suppress weeds and give the family the option to rotate herbicides. “That’s the way that we can fight glyphosate-resistant pigweed,” Marion says.
January marked their third year of continuous no-till. Last winter, while working on a combine picking up a lodged sorghum field, they noticed worm castings on the soil surface, dug down 6 inches and found three earthworms in a shovelful of soil — icons of real progress.
This photo on the Snell farm near Ackerly, Texas, shows a dryland field well-protected by a promising no-tilled winter wheat crop in the foreground, while in the background — and literally across the fence from the Snell property — a neighboring conventionally tilled farm in continuous cotton shows the deep gullying and erosion in the aftermath of massive rains.
Marion says one of their farms on the edge of the Caprock Escarpment that he rates the “worst land he has” now shows 1% soil organic matter because it has had constant high-residue crops.
“I believe it’s possible to raise soil organic matter to 2% in the southern High Plains. No-tilling isn’t a one-year program, it’s something you have to commit to for the rest of your life,” Marion says. “You’re going to have challenges every year. It takes a while to get organic matter going in the soil and some payback.
“Still, sand fighting is a non-productive enterprise, and you save a lot of moisture with no-till. All of that moisture was lost the old way.”
Sorghum in a Pinch
In the summer of 2014, needing income, the Snells planted 2,000 acres of grain sorghum into standing wheat stubble 2 days after wheat harvest was completed.
They harvested a profitable sorghum yield from 1,900 of those acres, even after most of the sorghum lodged in an ice storm and harvest ran well into the New Year. Thanks to a MacDon draper head outfitted with Flexxifinger crop lifters made in Canada, they were able to pick up the crop. Marion says it’s not a question of if, but when, sorghum planted in the region will see some lodging.
One of a pair of Shelbourne stripper headers is being rigged on one of two Case 2388 combines as members of the Snell family made preparation’s for this year’s winter wheat harvest.
“We were fortunate enough to get rains in the summer of 2014 and saw no soil washout of the fields and we weren’t losing water,” Marion says.
In the summer of 2013 they used haygrazer and sunn hemp as covers on 400 acres. Summer showers and rainfall boosted the haygrazer to 4-8 feet tall. They terminated the cover with glyphosate, ran over the residue with a rock roller and sowed wheat with a heavy double-disc drill.
They plan to follow wheat harvest this summer with plantings of cover crop mixes including haygrazer/forage sorghum, millet, and black-eyed peas or cow peas that they will then terminate in September in hopes of building soil carbon before going back to wheat.
“If you’re going to build the soil on the Southern High Plains there’s no room for ‘can’t’ in your vocabulary. You have to believe it’s a can-do deal and it’s going to take longer than 1 or 2 years,” Marion insists.
An essential tool for launching their successful wheat/cover crop/sorghum rotation has been a 60-foot Amity SD-60 air seeder trailed by a 525-bushel cart, all pulled by a tracked Case IH 535 tractor.
After years of drought, the Snells were dealing with irony in early June as they prepared to plant sorghum and harvest dryland wheat.
Huge amounts of rainfall — 10 inches in a single storm — inundated fields, flooding out all but 120 of their 1,800 acres of April-planted grain sorghum. Their farm didn’t wash, though, nor were there any of the deeply eroded gullies common on many of the bare-soiled cotton monoculture fields around them.
While they waited in early June for fields to dry sufficiently to plant, they were busy checking bearings and replacing 18-inch discs on the Amity air seeder. They also mounted Shelbourne-Reynolds stripper headers on their two Case IH 2388 combines with an eye toward leaving more standing wheat stubble once harvest could begin.
They began wheat harvest in mid-June and the stripper headers were leaving standing stubble 20 inches tall.
Sorghum harvesting has a bearing on wheat planting time, and wheat harvest can impact the planting periods for sorghum in their rotation.
Medium early sorghum varieties are planted at 3.5 to 4 pounds per acre. While this summer’s rains changed things, they normally plant sorghum in late April or June, opting to avoid May planting as it hasn’t worked in their experience.
Last year, as soon as wheat harvest was completed, they applied Dual and Roundup with a John Deere 4920 self-propelled sprayer rigged with a 100 foot boom and 1,200-gallon tank, and then moved in to plant late sorghum.
The air seeder is set for a 6-inch gap between sorghum or wheat rows, and a 9-inch gap between row pairs, for an average of 7½ inches between rows of sorghum or wheat. A post-emergence herbicide was applied later on sorghum planted in wheat residue.
Three cart compartments allow the Snells to apply a mid-row band of 100 pounds per acre of 46-0 urea between and below the sorghum seed rows, and 25 pounds per acre of 11-52-0 for starter fertilizer in the seed furrow.
The Snell family’s John Deere 4920 self-propelled sprayer, with a 100-ft boom and 1,200-gallon tank, is key to their weed-fighting efforts on 6,000 acres of near Ackerly and Arney, Texas. Here the machine is shown at filling facilities at the family’s farm headquarters near Ackerly.
Between the two seed-opener discs there’s another disc opener that serves as a mid-row bander, Matt explains.
“We feel no-tilling is really helping our sorghum yields — they’ve been getting better since we started,” Marion adds. “Because of the rotation, and using herbicides with varying modes of action, we haven’t had problems with glyphosate-resistant weeds. Last year we got a profitable sorghum yield after harvesting a wheat crop in a dry year.”
Ideally, the Snells harvest sorghum in October and November using 36-foot draper headers on the combines. Sorghum comes off earlier at the Ackerly farm than in Arney because of warmer temperatures earlier.
The Snells look to harvest early sorghum in August and September, get their wheat planted in October, return to harvesting sorghum in late October and November, and wrap up wheat planting as late as December. They favor TAM 111 wheat sown at 60 pounds per acre.
Their first harvested dryland wheat of 2015 was yielding 40 bushels per acre, with better prospects awaiting in some fields — weather permitting.
“Naysayers have pronounced for years that wheat won’t grow here in Dawson County on the South Plains,” Marion said recently as he surveyed well-anchored soils in near ready-to-harvest wheat fields. “But to me, the rippling stand of wheat on many fields awaiting harvest is a pretty good sand fighter.”
Snells Encourage Fellow No-Tillers in Southern High Plains
By Jim Steiert
Marion Snell has some advice for beginning no-tillers battling difficult conditions — don’t give up on the vision.
Having persisted in making no-till farming work in a difficult environment on the southern High Plains, Marion and family members Joy, Matt, and Pam have worked hard to make no-tilling succeed on their farm, and are all about giving credit where it’s due and spreading the soil- and moisture-conserving practice.
“Chase Garcia with the Martin County NRCS office in Stanton, Texas, has provided a wealth of knowledge,” opines Joy. “We’re in the EQIP and CSP programs on all of our acres because Chase helped us to get into them.
Joy notes that a group of area farmers now meets monthly in Lamesa to talk no-till — sort of a ‘no-tillers anonymous,’ since the practice isn’t widespread and kind of under the radar in the region and some farmers are just getting started and need encouragement.”
Meetings usually involve viewing of a video, or a presentation by Garcia.
Members of the Snell family also go to great lengths to conduct and monitor their widespread farming, having worked out the shortest distance for hauling equipment by truck from the South Plains to Arney, in the Panhandle.
Matt, a licensed pilot, has equipped his Cessna 185 single engine airplane with bush tires so he can land adjacent to fields, and he flies frequently to check crops.
The plane shaves the 3-plus-hour, one-way travel time from Lamesa to Arney to just an hour when family members need to get there quickly to check on crop conditions or scout at the two extreme ends of their farming operations in the Texas Panhandle/South Plains.