No-till has resulted in our area having what I would venture to say are some of the strongest capitalized farms in the country. In fact, no-till is one of the only reasons we have farming in the area at all.
Our farm and the farms around us are made up of very hilly ground truly ill-suited for farming. Livestock dominated the landscape here when I was young. There were some attempts made to farm the land over the years.
Due to the tillage involved and the silty soil, however, so much topsoil washed away it nearly ruined those acres. The limited use and production potential resulted in relatively low land prices.
When no-till came along, farmers were able to purchase land for cheap. With the topsoil held firmly in place they could farm acres previously only good for pastures, and get those acres to produce to levels never thought possible. Combine low land costs with top yields and you get farmers with a higher percent of profitability than most.
No-till isn’t even a question here — it’s just a fact. We’ve been no-tilling for 25 years and are moving on to other ways to make our farm more consistently productive. A prime focus for us is water management through a combination of tiling and irrigation. I farm with my father, Bobby, and my younger brother, Brian. We combine our passions and expertise to keep pushing the farm forward.
It’s all about water management for us right now. Getting control over our water helps us farm more profitably and makes no-till work that much better.
Check The Specs...
FARM: Triple G Farms
NAME: Darren Grogan
LOCATION: Arlington, Ky.
YEARS NO-TILLING: 25
ACRES: 14,000 acres
CROPS: Corn, Soybeans, Wheat
Combine our hilly ground with no-till and you quickly realize almost every field has bottomland that is slow to dry out and warm up in the spring. Tillage will dry it right out, but then you lose all your topsoil. The solution for us is drainage.
About 20 years ago we started installing drainage tile on our land, even going so far as to purchase a commercial tiling machine. Since then we’ve laid 3-4 million feet of pattern tile drainage in our fields.
Most of our tile is spaced at 30- to 40-feet. Spacing is important, but more important is knowing how much water you’re trying to move over a 24-hour period. We’re trying to move 3/8- to ½-inch of water per acre per 24 hours. To get that kind of drainage you must design your mains accordingly.
How many acres you attach to each main will determine the size of main needed to move water effectively. A small area may only require a 6-inch-diameter main, while more acres may require a 12-inch main. It’s important to get that right for the best results.
Having well-drained ground has served us well. In the past we had done some tillage on bottomlands so we could plant sooner, but we’re now 100% no-till since we pattern tiled those acres. It’s also resulted in an expansion of wheat production.
Having wheat in our rotation allows us to double up production on the acres where it’s planted as we double-crop soybeans after the wheat. Wheat, however, does not like a lot of water. It needs water at certain points in its growth, but when it doesn’t need water it reacts poorly to having wet feet.
Drainage made more of our acres suitable for raising wheat, allowing us to get three crops in two years on a larger percentage of our farm. Growing more wheat also helps us be better stewards of the soil. Its living roots help secure the soils in our hilly fields over the winter and adds more residue to continue holding the soil as we rotate to soybeans. If we only grew corn and soybeans we would see a lot more surface erosion.
We get 50 inches of rain per year in our area, making irrigation an uncommon practice. But we’ve found it pays for us. We get plenty water, but never exactly when you want it. There’s too much when we don’t want it and not enough when you do.
As a result, we have a significant number of acres with both tile drainage and irrigation. We need be able to get rid of water when we don’t need it and add it when we do.
When trying to wrap your head around having both systems in the same field, it’s important to understand how plants, water and soils interact. Plants can only use water molecules that are attached to soil particles. They can’t use the excess water that is puddling or saturating the soil.
Too much water is only a detriment, not a positive. Tile drainage will only remove the unattached and unusable water from the field. The rest is retained by the soil for the crop to use later. When applying water through irrigation, tile would only remove water if we overapplied what the soil is capable of retaining.
A lot of our moisture comes in the spring when we’re trying to dry out the fields for planting or when the plant is too small to use a significant amount of water. But when July comes, and the plant is capable of using up to ½-inch of water per day, we are left to the whim of popup storms that may or may not hit our fields.
TIMING IS EVERYTHING. The Grogans may get 50 inches of rainfall per year, but never when it’s needed. Having irrigation pivots on their most drought-vulnerable acres have saved the day — and easily paid for themselves — in years where drought otherwise would have completely devastated yields.
Irrigation takes luck out of the equation and puts us in control of our water. We’re able to greatly mitigate the risk of drought.
We weren’t the first to bring in irrigation, but we were the first to employ it on a large scale. We have 32 center pivots covering roughly 35% of our cropping acres — those most vulnerable to drought risk.
That’s a significant investment. But for me, cost as a capital investment never really comes into play. It’s all about return. It doesn’t matter what you spend on tile or a center pivot or anything else if you’re able to get a return from the investment.
In 2008 and 2009 when crop prices were high we were getting around 15% return with irrigation, allowing us to put on water and nutrients as needed. However in 2012 when we had a major drought, our irrigated acres produced 260-bushel corn while those that didn’t have irrigation produced only 60 bushels per acre. It doesn’t take many acres for a system to pay for itself in one year in those conditions.
The same is true for drainage. If a crop drowns out early it’s the difference between zero production and full production. If I had to choose between drainage and irrigation, I’d pick drainage every time. I would never worry about irrigation until drainage is taken care of.
The health and makeup of our soils is the third leg in our water management stool. The higher our soil organic matter (SOM) and the more residue we have, the more water our soil will take in and retain.
In our early days of farming, when we were still doing tillage, our SOM was around 1%. Now, with decades of no-till and including wheat in our rotation, we’ve pushed SOM to as much as 3.5%-4% on some of our acres. That’s a substantial increase.
The increase is critical to us improving our production. The more SOM we have, the greater the available water-holding capacity is for our soils. This benefits us in several ways.
For one, more water permeates the soil so there is less runoff to cause erosion. The soil will also retain more water, holding it for crop use resulting in higher yields.
An improved soil pays in irrigation, too. With no-till and a higher SOM, I can put on more water per pass with my pivot than possible in conventional tillage. I’m spending money to run that pump, so I want to put on as much water as I can per pass without paying to run water down the ditches.
My high-SOM and residue-covered soils allow water to infiltrate faster and hold more water before they reach saturation. Plus, the no-till residue gives me greater protection against evaporation losses.
A higher SOM means there’s more carbon in the soil, too, which equates to a higher cation exchange capacity (CEC). The higher the CEC, the better the soil is at holding nutrients.
Each of these management strategies don’t only result in one change for our farm. It’s really a paradigm change. We make one change and several aspects of our system get better. This is what we’ve seen with our soil and water management strategies.
I’ve taken all our RTK and GPS surveys of our fields and used an algorithm to determine exactly how water flows over every square inch of our fields...
Dialing in water use has been a great benefit, and we’re taking the same tact with the rest of our inputs. We meticulously plan inputs and place them with precision. We variable-rate every nutrient and seed that goes in the ground based on algorithms I write myself.
Our precision program started in 1999, when the concept was first taking off. We purchased yield monitors and started soil sampling. I was a young man at the time and thought I was going to answer every question and solve all our problems with this technology.
After the first year I realized instead of answering questions I simply created even more. It was apparent I was going to have to step up my agronomic knowledge.
Initially we used the data we were collecting to test inputs and management strategies, often learning more from our failures than our successes.
For example, in 2012 we had the worst drought seen in history. Not a single raindrop fell from the end of May through mid-October. That fall we planted our wheat into corn stubble and managed it intensively just as we always had. The no-till wheat tillered significantly better and yield was up as much as 20 bushels from normal.
The difference was the corn hadn’t used all the nitrogen (N), allowing the wheat access to a higher rate of N earlier in the season than was normal. We had always applied our N in January, but this showed us N was needed earlier.
We left our N rate the same for wheat, but now we apply a greater percentage earlier in the season. It also steered us completely away from tillage. We used to lightly work the soil before wheat to improve tillering, but now we don’t have to.
We suspect the heavy residue left from no-till was decreasing the amount of N available to the wheat early in its growth. The microorganisms were using it as they broke down residue.
By moving up our N application we’re able to overcome that early deficit making our no-till wheat a consistent success. And it’s certainly cheaper to apply a little more N than to do tillage. We pushed our no-till wheat yield potential from around 65 bushels per acre to over 100 bushels.
The wheat gains could be figured out simply from our yield monitor, but many factors go into the precision programs we use today. We have all our soil type data and I’ve collected a tremendous amount of data on what I can expect out of each of those soil types.
I’ve taken all our RTK and GPS surveys of our fields and used an algorithm to determine exactly how water flows over every square inch of our fields. I classify the land as water positive, water negative or water neutral based on slope. A square foot that’s water neutral will retain every drop of water that falls on it. A water negative parcel will have water run off while a water positive parcel will collect water. This is important for determining yield.
I create an index that increases seed and fertility inputs on the portions of land that have access to more water and can produce more yield. Our highest indexes are our bottomlands which are water positive but protected from over saturation with tile drainage.
TIGHT SHIP. Raising three crops in two seasons means harvest and planting usually go together for the Grogans. As soon as corn is harvested, the fields are sprayed, fertilized for wheat and the following soybean crop, and seeded to wheat.
One of my early precision failures was that I tried to use the data to save money on inputs. All I did was set areas up to fail which became a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you don’t treat a piece of ground well, it won’t produce.
Now I know the most profitable way to go is to be more aggressive, giving every part of the field what it needs and then identifying the acres that are all stars to get even more inputs.
To create our input prescriptions, we look at past yields, soil type, water flow and our grid-sample soil tests which include soil pH. Every field is soil tested every other year. Our rotation is corn, wheat, double-cropped soybeans and back to corn. The fall prior to planting corn each field is grid soil sampled.
How precisely we can vary inputs in the field changes by what equipment we’re using. Due to our size, we have a wide variety of equipment in the fields.
Through our efforts and the improved quality of hybrids and varieties, we’ve seen our dryland corn yields hit 180 bushels and irrigated corn hit 220-225 bushels. Our full season soybeans are around 55 bushels per acre and double-crop soybeans are 60-65 bushels. But more importantly, we’re getting more efficient every day.