Make Hay While the Sun Shines

Zach puts in a late night

One of the consequences to waiting until field conditions are ideal before bringing the heavy equipment in is the long days into the nights that we work to get it all done in a short window of days. Springtime often brings frequent rains, which gives us precious few good days to run in a stretch before being put out again for maintenance and jobs of secondary importance.

I like to make time to stop and eat, and always make time to hug my children and teach them a lesson or two, but 14-16 hour work days in the spring and fall are common. Planting, spraying, and harvesting are my bread and butter, so fishing and playing usually have to wait for a rainy day.

The benefit of cramming all of that work into long days is top yields from a well timed, placed, and cared for crop. Waiting until conditions are dry enough also saves our fields from compaction problems and uneven emergence.

Let me also remember that my dear wife works long days taking care of the children and teaching them diligently while I am away.

Sunrise under pecan trees on the farm
Sunrise under pecan trees on the farm


How to Fix Ditches in Fields

sunset ditch fixing

It used to be standard procedure each spring to hook up a big tractor to a disk and smooth out ditches that formed in the field over the past year to prepare for planting, even no-till planting. But, “smoothing out ditches” actually amounts to destroying the soil structure and integrity of the field around the ditch in order to make it look smooth. The final result is a natural drainage area being given a loose-dirt bottom that will be blown out even deeper with the next big rain, compounding the original problem. Reflecting on this makes me wonder how much the topography of these fields has changed over the past 200 years of this tillage practice.

sunset farm ditch fixed

Today we fix ditches smarter with a 12 yard dirt-moving scraper (or dirt pan, as we call it). The earth is for mining as well as farming, so we find a place in the edge of a field or other under-utilized land to scrape off topsoil, then lay it in the ditch, mounding it up, driving over it to pack it in, and flattening it out as we finish. The result is a structurally sound, water-dispersing, natural drainage area that will resist washing out through the next big rains. If the area gathers too much water for crop roots to hold, we set aside the drainage area from planting and spraying, sow it with fescue which grows a thick mat of roots and ground cover, and call it a grassed waterway.

Tennessee Corn Planting is Well Underway

Warm temperatures in March had a lot of planters rolling early this year.  But, on my farm, we waited, because although soil temperature was adequate, it was not ideal and there was still a chance of frost and areas of excess field moisture. So I decided to hold off and hope for more ideal conditions. By the time those conditions came it was April 13th; and a couple days later, when I had 200 acres done, some farmers had 1,000+ acres behind them and were finished.

Planting end-rows where leaving a wide grass field border on a slope
Planting end-rows where leaving a wide grass field border on a slope

But I am happy with the way it has worked out. As of this hour, we have 400 acres planted, which puts us at 37%. If Zach gets as big of a day in the planter as he did yesterday we could be at 57% by the time rain comes tonight.

When planting is done at the ideal soil temperature of +60 degrees, seedlings germinate and emerge quickly and evenly, leading to a better stand and higher yields. Last year I learned a hard lesson by planting some ground that was too wet just to get 40 acres done the day before a rain. Those acres ended up with a poor stand, and yield dragged 30 bushels behind what I had hoped for. It also created compaction which had to be relieved by ripping 15 inches deep before planting a crop of canola.

In the picture below you can see unevenness in the stand of canola from ripping at diagonal lines.

canola shop bin top ripping marks
Picture taken from the top of a grain bin showing ripper lines at a diagonal

Sowing Grass Along a Creek

kids seeding creek bank

Trees were cut along the bank of a big creek on the edge of a field I rent near Cottage Grove a year ago. Having the trees gone is good for production along the borders, because trees compete with my crops for moisture, nutrients, and sunlight up to 60 feet into the field. The outside pass with my combine around a tree-lined field border always yields below my cost of production, unless I leave a field buffer strip 40 feet from the tree trunks. Then someone must bear the cost of so much underutilized land.

Here is provided a great opportunity to sow the creek bank with fescue seed for a good, thick stand of grass to prevent erosion. Trees prevent erosion on steep banks only about as well as their mat of fallen leaves can stick to the ground and turn off water. But grasses have a dense network of root hairs which prevent erosion like nothing else.

Notice, in the picture above, the exposed earth on the opposite side of the creek. It is that way up and down both sides of this creek ditch, which is 15 feet deep and 30 feet wide. Last year, trees were cut on both sides, so the chance to sow fescue and stop erosion is a fresh opportunity.

These trees undoubtedly grew here naturally. Natural, in this case, means untended, uncontrolled, and chaos; like hard storms and erosion are natural. Hopefully, our grass seed will take root and maintain the current creek boundaries to preserve this farmland for the next generation.

Children enjoy work

Minimum Tillage Wheat

2016 Wheat Crop
2016 Wheat Crop

Many no-till farmers still disk their fields multiple times to drill or scatter wheat seed because that’s the way they have always done it.  Two years ago we bought a big John Deere 1990CCS no-till drill and began drilling wheat after corn without tillage.  The first year we used it was for the 2014 crop which had bad yields of around 50 bushels and terrible disease. The previous year, 2013, we had double turbo-tilled then drilled using an old 10 foot drill to plant 530 acres of wheat that was our best crop ever averaging 85 bushels per acre.  For 2015 we no-tilled some of it and turbo-tilled some. See the harvest map below where there is a turbo-tilled strip in the middle of a no-tilled field.

2015 turbo-tilled test plot
2015 turbo-tilled test plot

The yield difference was a 115 bushel average in the turbo-tilled plot, and 83 bushels per acre in the middle of the field next to it. That’s 32 bushels per acre difference!  With the wheat price at $5.50 in 2015 that meant $176/ac more revenue. And, apples to apples, the whole field got the same fertilizer and nitrogen rate.  I learned a valuable lesson.

The caveat is that my conservation plan at the NRCS office requires a 70% residue covering if I conduct any form of tillage, so I have to make sure I’m not burying too much residue.  My equipment makes that easy with a hydraulic aggressiveness setting from 0% to 6% angle (which actually makes a big difference), so I can assess the job and make quick adjustments throughout the field and between different residue toughness conditions throughout the day. A Great Plains Turbo-Till is different from a disk in that it is vertical tillage, meaning it’s purpose is to make strictly vertical cuts and shallow fractures in the topsoil.  Whereas a disk actually rolls the topsoil over with cup shaped blades and turns the top layer of soil upside down while breaking it into chunks; and disking is usually done two or three times over in the same field to make small chunks or even powder the seed-bed. That’s a recipe for disaster when a big rain comes.

Adequate corn residue coverage in 2016 wheat field

Carefully selected tillage equipment, the right drill, and good timing can go a long way toward making an excellent wheat crop while conserving the land for the next crop and future generations.

As the rains fall…

As the rains fall from December through March I do not worry much about my fields.  25% of them are planted into canola or wheat and the crops look thick and lush.  Some erodible hillsides are planted in wheat as a cover crop.  The rest of my fields have natural winter annuals growing in them because I don’t practice “winter fallow” residual spraying to keep the weeds down between crops.  My field waterways and roadside ditches may run full in a big rain, but are lined with thick grass sod that I maintain so as to not color the water with suspended mud washing from my fields into the rivers.

Near the end of a heavy rain is a perfect time to scout for soil conservation problems.  Here are some images from recent scouting after heavy winter rains. Over all, I consider my work and practices successful because this water is clean.

The water in the image below is running down a grass waterway that is planted at the base of some of the steepest slopes that we will plant.  The field and grassed waterway are holding together nicely.  The rock structure in the foreground is where the grass waterway empties into a culvert to go under the road.  The large rock slows the water down and causes it to travel on top so it will not wash out a ditch.  No ditch = no erosion.

Clear runoff from 8-12% slopes after a three inch rain.

Below, this is NOT my field washing across the road. It is the topsoil from a neighbor’s field who plants after conventional tillage with a disk.  We sold our disk years ago and I’ve never experienced this kind of destruction of land.  Some of this valuable loam will end up in the Mississippi River and be carried down to the estuary at New Orleans.

NOT my field

When culverts aren’t able to carry the full load of water, sometimes I get washes across the road too.  This is my field with clear water running across the road. There is an area of about 45 acres draining into this area with slopes of up to 8%.

Clear Road wash

Here is runoff on top of controlled runoff at the end of a 10″ pipe carrying water from a terrace in a grassed waterway about 400′ above this ejection point at the road culvert. It is running full force with clear water draining about 60 acres. There is no erosion in my fields from this 3″ December rain!

clear pipe ejection