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Changes in Soil Quality and Productivity with Direct Seeding
John E. Aeschliman
JEA Farms LTD, Colfax, Washington

I am a third generation farmer on land that my grandfather settled in the mid 1880's. Our home, which grandfather originally built, but has since been refurbished, is located 9 miles south of Colfax and serves as base for both mine and my son Cory's farming operation. Combined, we farm approximately 4000 acres of mostly Athena and Palouse silt loam soils in the 15 - 18" and 18 - 20" rainfall area.

Our crop rotations are winter wheat, spring barley, spring wheat and/or chemical summerfallow. We have also raised spring peas and spring and winter canola, and the past 3 to 4 years we have been raising some field corn as an additional alternative crop.

Why No-Till? Does It Work? How Do We Do It?
For the most part, our ground is all HEL, or highly erodable, and some is in excess of 50% slope. Erosion of the soil has been a major problem through the years in our area, and growing up in the hills of the Palouse, it was a common occurence to see really bad erosion coming out of the fields into the ditches, and in some cases, across country roads in the spring. As a youngster, mud and water running everywhere when the snow left was just a sign that spring was around the corner. The conventional summerfallow/wheat rotation of the area of course contributed greatly to the erosion problem then, and still does today, even though spring barley has, for the most part, been added to the rotation. Spring peas are also in the rotation, but have not been used as much in recent years, due to prices.

How is one to survive in today's economic climate? Becoming as efficient as possible in our operations is one of the first things that come to my mind. Someone once shared with me a principle that can be applied to almost any business that sells into a market that pretty much has an established market price. I find that this principle will apply in most business applications. The person who shared this with me was a seasoned cattle feeder and had spent a number of his early years running his own butcher shop in the late 30's. He knew not only what a choice steer was supposed to look like on the hoof, but he understood what the steer looked like hanging on the rail guaranteed to dress at 62%. He told me, "you don't make your money when you sell the steer, you make your money when you buy it (as a feeder)." In other words, if you pay too much for your cattle going in on feed, you could find yourself buried coming out at sale time, because the market was generally already established when you went in.

In this economic climate for farm commodities, one needs to not get buried in his costs going in, because there is a good chance you may not get them back out when it comes time to sell. Spend the input money wisely, but cut costs everywhere you can. Direct seeding, by limiting trips over the ground is a big cost savings in fuel, equipment maintenance and labor. It also conserves the soil and water and builds soil life, which in turn improves soil quality and grows bigger and better crops. Leaving the stubble and residue on the soil surface, by direct seeding and not disturbing the rysosphere with tillage, will cause the biological activity to increase and will build up humic compounds in your soil. Organic carbon is essential for the soils biology to live, so everything you can do to enhance this will be money to your bottom line. It has been said that in one handful of healthy soil there can be as many micro-organisms as there are people on the face of the earth. Of course, if these guys were all of the nitrogen-fixing varieties such as Rhizobium and Azotobacter, which have the unique ability to take nitrogen out of the air and place it in your soil, for free, why would one do anything to inhibit a healthy place for them to live? Or Mycorrhizae, an organism that has the unique ability to gather phosphorus in the soil through its hyphae network and bring it to the plant in exchange for the carbon that "leaks" from the roots of the plant. Research has shown that this organism cannot live with tillage.

There is much to be said about the advantages of a healthy soil and how it affects the yields and the quality of the grain it produces. Be assured, it is well worth the time spent to educate oneself in understanding how the soil food web works, and how essential it is to our production to keep it healthy. We have been using the direct-seed system on part or all of our farms in one way or another since the early 70's. We currently own 3 drills - the Yielder 20' mobile track drill, which has rubber tracks, making it a true LGP, or low ground pressure drill, a 1320 end wheel Yielder drill, which has movable axles that allow you to shift the weight of the drill off the tongue to allow you to pull it with a crawler, and our latest purchase - a Great Plains 3010 dual liquid 36' air drill that was built as a prototype for us to test with Great Plains engineers to run in the hills of the Palouse. They are all minimum disturbance drills and all have their place in our operation, although we have pretty much outgrown the Yielder 1320, and it is presently for sale - an excellent entry level direct-seed drill, capable of seeding directly into 100 bu. wheat residue.

What Changes Have We Seen Since Changing to Direct-Seed?
The changes we have seen in our soils since doing long term no-till have been phenomenal. One hundred years of moldboard plowing and tillage, plus water erosion, have removed 1 to 2 feet of soil on most ridges and exposed the clays and the cleachy layers to the surface. These areas, regardless of what you did, produced a minimal crop. Now, after years of direct-seeding and very little disturbance, the residue left on the surface is building back the organic matter, the soil life is returning, and with the addition of calcium and phosphorus, along with the nitrogen, it is once again producing, in most areas, the same as the hilltops and bottom ground. These same slopes, once guaranteed to erode in a weather event, absorb the moisture like a sponge, and even in the most severe downpours, seldom run any water, unless completely frozen. The saying that direct-seeding will gain you from 2 to 4 more inches of water is true.

Because of the added moisture on our farms, we are experiencing deep moisture reserves left in the profile in the 5 to 6 foot area after a spring crop, and in some cases, after a fall crop. Moisture that used to run down the hill and away through the neighbors' fields and road ditches, now is accumulating in the profiles, and is still there after crop removal on the hilltops, as well as in the bottom ground. For this reason, we have been experimenting with corn, which has the ability to access the deep moisture reserve. For three years now, we have raised corn in rotation as one of the particpants in the Pacific Northwest no-till crops project, where we are raising several crops in a 3 and 4 year rotational study.

This year 2000, we had approximately 70 acres of corn which yielded, on the average, about 95 bu., but in selected test areas, yielded in the 120 bu. range. I think we are just learning how to do this, and fully expect, with the correct procedures and varieties, to be in the 130 to 150 bu. range in the next few years. Corn competes with barley in the rotation and acre for acre, all things equal, will produce from one and a half to two times more corn dollars than it will produce in barley dollars. Direct-seeding has advantages in the higher rainfall areas, also, where too much rainfall is a problem . Over extended time, it will cause the ground to perk and will carry the water down and away into the profile to allow the crop to grow in a more healthy aerobic soil condition. Where the soil doesn't perk and the water sits on the surface until late in the year, one finds that oxygen starvation, disease or other, keeps the plant from producing. Minimum disturbance direct-seeding boost organic matter and soil tilth, allowing more earthworm and soil life activity to occur.

What Do We See For The Future?
I see continued research needed to study one of the biggest black boxes out there in agriculure, that being the study of the rysosphere or root zone of the soil and the organisms that live there. We know more about the surface of the moon than we know about the first foot of soil that we walk and drive over in our fields. Who are the microbial families that live there? What function does each community provide? Which ones are most beneficial for which rotations? Which rotation do we use to advance the development of the microbial community that is most beneficial to our cash crop - wheat or maybe another crop that replaces wheat? A healthy soil produces a healthy crop. An active soil life enhances the commercial fertilizers we use and consequently, in many cases, less is needed because of the extra boost you get from the microbial activity making humus from organic matter.

Other than glyphosate, we use less herbicides, since our ground has been in long term direct-seed. Air quality and water quality have been addressed, because nothing blows and nothing runs. Additionally, ag economics are being addressed because of the savings from the lack of trips over the ground, yet realizing the same or better yields as a conventional farming system. Because of the lack of tillage and the accumulation of heavy residue levels, studies are now underway to develop a model to show how much carbon is sequestered or held in place with the no-till system. Groundwork is being laid by the PNDSA to help farmers sell or lease carbon credits to offset pollution generated by industry. This has the potential to be another income source for farmers and another plus for adoption of the direct-seed system.

What Can We Do To Advance Direct-Seeding?
One of the biggest needs of our industry is to sharpen our communication skills with each other about our successes and failures with direct-seeding so everyone who tries it doesn't have to make the same mistakes. Also, we need to encourage our neighbors to try a field or two to discover how the system can work for them, and then advise or help them to get it done correctly. Only until we try a system, will we only really understand what it can do for us. Even more important, we need to voice our opinions and concerns to the consumer about what direct-seeding is doing for the environment and the tremendous strength we have as a nation because of our strong agricultural base in this country. If the family farm is lost, what effect will that have on our economy as a whole?

A few little known statistics:

1) In the 1950's, 40 to 50% of America lived on farms. Today, 2001, farmers represent less than 1% of the population. That's 99 to 1 - yet those same statistics will show that 35 to 40% of the jobs here in America are Ag related in some way, even if it is only by providing the tires that are on your farm truck. If farmers don't start talking to the consumer to insure the correctness of media-driven information, we could be voted into extinction before we realize they just killed the goose that was laying the golden eggs.

2) In Europe today, 50 to 60% of the Europeans' spendable income is spent on food. In third world countries, 80 to 90% of spendable income is spent on food. In the US, Americans spend an average of 11% of their spendable income on food. Are your lights going on yet?

Another statistic: 3) If you give a dollar to a blue collar worker, it turns 2-1/2 times in our economy. If you give a dollar to his boss, or the company he is employed by, it turns 3-1/2 times. If you give the same dollar to agriculture or to the farmer, it turns 7-1/2 times in our economy! Food and fiber - that's what we produce, and every person on the face of the earth needs what we grow to live. Why is ag in such economic straits?

One more statistic: 4) Did you know that if the price of wheat was $6. per bushel, the value of the wheat in one loaf of bread would be less than .3 cents? The company that makes the plastic wrappers the bread comes in makes more than we do as farmers, and we supply the major ingredient! Needless to say, we need to communicate these things and many others to our city brothers and sisters, and I think that being properly informed, we will find more allies in their ranks than enemies. More money is needed for research in many ag areas, and the majority opinion will control the purse strings.

In Conclusion
I am optimistic about the future of agriculture. Never before, in the history of mankind, have we had such an opportunity to produce. Technology, such as sattelite pictures of our fields, GPS-driven yield mapping, GPS guidance systems for spraying at night, computer programs to track any cost or time study instantly, marketing programs, not to mention the introduction of the internet, bio-control development for cereal grain diseases, gene research allowing food seeds to be protected from know diseases, LGP no-till drills, combines and grain carts - the list can go on forever. We are stewards of this land for a short time. Let's see that history reveals, that on our watch, the management and farming systems we used built and improved the quality of this great resource, the soil, so that we can pass it on to the next generation in better shape than we received it. May God grant this to be a reality in our lifetime.