By Gene Armas, Contributing Writer
The spraying bills were adding up for Miles Willhite. He felt that the mounting expenses — creeping into the five-figure realm — to spray chemicals, including application costs, were outweighing the benefits of no-tilling on what was then a 300-acre farm in Leon, Kan.
It marked a turning point in how Willhite would farm moving forward. Today, his farm, now about 500 acres, is in transition out of the no-till farming he and his family have done for decades — at least for now.
“I’m not trying to get away from no-till,” the 43-year-old Willhite says. “I’m trying to get away from chemical farming. But basically, I want to get back to a healthier soil environment. Getting back to no-till isn’t going to happen overnight.”
This is a significant philosophical shift for a farm that was one of the first in its area to use no-till. One field that Willhite inherited from his uncle had soil that hasn’t been tilled in 35 years.
But weeds were becoming an expensive nuisance and choking the hard ground in many places. Marestail, especially, had become a problem, as had other weed resistance concerns.
“Since my fields are hard as rock, I’ve started seeding some cover crops,” Willhite says. But he says Mother Nature’s window of opportunity in his part of Kansas makes it difficult to seed cover crops in a timely manner to increase germination potential, and he’s broadcasting some varieties into standing soybean fields.
“The ground is so hard, and it’s got so many weeds, it takes many chemical passes to take care of and it’s eating up any profits we might make,” adds Willhite, who farms mostly clay loam soils.
At one point, a neighboring farmer who serves as his custom applicator told Willhite not to spray herbicide on the new generation of dicamba resistant soybeans.
“Getting back to no-till isn’t going to happen overnight.”
“I don’t want to make the weeds resistant to the dicamba,” Willhite says in relaying the custom applicator’s reluctance. “I’m sitting here thinking ‘Is this what we’re going to have to worry about every year?’”
Symptoms vs. Problems
Willhite likens the chemicals to prescription drugs from a physician.
“They’re going to treat all these symptoms, but not the core of the problem,” he says. He believes no-tillers and those that use cover crops can restore the soil’s nutrients, but may have to turn to cultivation first to get back to that philosophy, long-term.
So during the last 2 years, Willhite started experimenting. He chiseled the field he inherited from his uncle, then field cultivated and planted 30-inch rows of conventionally-tilled soybeans.
Willhite didn’t use any chemical applications. He cultivated when weeds started coming up and then used the same method on a nearby smaller field.
“Those two fields, going back to the old-fashioned way of farming, made me more money than any others I had to spray a bunch of times,” he says.
He explains that he’s resetting his fields by chiseling to get oxygen to the roots, following up with tillage after harvest and seeding a cover crop to keep the ground loose. The tighter the ground, the more weeds, he says.
Willhite makes his living mainly through the family-owned business, Willhite Crop Insurance. He doesn’t have a baseline for yields on his farm because of changes in precipitation over the years.
For 2016, he estimates his non-GMO soybeans made 35 bushels per acre, while what he called his “modern beans” averaged 48 bushels per acre. But he sold his non-GMO soybeans for $1.25 more a bushel.
The non-GMO soybean seed cost $18 per 50 pounds an acre. When accounting for two spraying passes, plus the cost of the soybean seed, the no-till beans cost him $54 per 50 pounds an acre, which translated to a savings of $36 per acre.
“In the long run, the non-GMO beans and conventional tillage made me more money,” he says.
As for soil quality, Willhite sees the switch as a positive. More oxygen gets into the ground. Cultivated cover crops work green manure back into the soil. He’ll also work fish fertilizer into the ground for his cover crops.
He’ll plant pollinator strips in some areas and he’s going to go organic practices on one field. Willhite has no time frame on how long it will take to get the ground back to the point where feels he can return to no-tilling.
“The soil will tell me,” he says.