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What I Know About Direct Seeding or Why I Haven't Sold The Plow
Leroy Druffel

THE FARM

Our family farms in the Colton and Uniontown area of Whitman County, Washington and Upper Tammany in Nez Perce County, Idaho. Our ground has a tremendous variation in soil type, topography and rainfall. Soil type includes a very light Athena to a heavy Naff, Garfield, Palouse silt loam in Whitman County to heavy Broadax and Slickpoo soils in Nez Perce County. The slope goes from flat to straight up and down. Rain fall ranges from 16 inches to over 20 inches per year. We predominately annual crop with a little chemfallow for special circumstances. The primary crops are fall and spring wheat, barley, freezer and dry peas, lentils, perennial crops such as grasses, and the mailbox for government checks. We have dabbled in cannola, mustard, rape, flax, corn, garbonzos, sunflowers, and safflower.

WHAT WE DO

HARDWARE - Our direct seed drills consist of a 3010 Great Plains air drill and an 1860 John Deere air drill both at 10 inch row spacing. The Great Plains drill has a deep penetrating turbo coulture for fertilizing and residue clearance followed by a double disk opener and packer delivering both seed and dry fertilizer. This drill is medium disturbance, good in residue, very good on side hills, pulls like a rock, can cover 40 to 50 acres between fills at fairly high fertilizer rates and has fair seed and fertilizer placement. Depending on how hard the ground is the bulk of the fertilizer is placed zero to two inches below the seed. In wet conditions the seed depth can be erratic; varying over an inch at times. We use this drill almost exclusively for grains and brassicas.

The John Deere drill has a single disk opener with air delivered seed and liquid pop up fertilizer on top of the seed. The drill is very low disturbance, pulls fairly easy for a direct seed drill, excellent on seed placement, fair in heavy residue and fair on side hills (even with a hillside hitch the seed rows start to pair up on slopes over 30%). It can cover 30-50 acres between fills. We use this drill for pulse crops, two pass seeding, and perennial crops.

Hint - No matter what drill you use, start with smooth ground. No till will only make it rougher.

ROTATIONS - If I had a rotation that I could continuous direct seed and make money, I'd sell it to you and retire. We are committed to at least a three-year crop rotation including grains, legumes, brassicas and perennials. Economics drive our crop selection and we cheat to make things work. Small grains and pulses are the most economically successful. In order to make direct seeding work, we occasionally selectively burn and use light tillage for residue management.

The easiest rotations have been grains in pulse, brassica, or burned ground. We have had good luck seeding perennials into spring crop stubble. We can continuously direct seed spring grains and the absolute easiest is to seed spring barley into any type of crop residue. We are having difficulty planting pulses (particularly peas) and wheat into heavy residue. The heavy residue makes it difficult to place the seed and fertilizer while the cold wet seedbed retards stand establishment. We are working on seeding fall grains into spring grains with some success.

If the economics and available varieties would allow it I think we could continuously direct seed a rotation of winter wheat, winter pulse or brassica, spring grain then a spring broadleaf or brassica. We could also continuously direct seed with some burning for residue management.

In all high residue situations, we find increasing seed and fertilizer rates by 20-30% helps establish a good stand.

OUR BIGGEST STRUGGLES ARE RESIDUE AND PEST MANAGEMENT

RESIDUE - What can you do with 100+ bushel wheat stubble? I'm not complaining, but the residue left makes direct seeding difficult. The first step is a good combine residue spreader. When high residue fall wheat is followed by spring wheat we are shredding the stubble and fall fertilizing with a shank machine. However, we have seeded spring barley into extreme residue with success.

Pulses and brassicas planted into spring grain ground need very little residue modification. When planting these crops into fall wheat residue, we have been aggressive with seedbed preparation in the fall. Except for chemicals, the ground is ready to spring seed before fall is over. Even fall wheat into pea ground sometimes needs residue management. We sometimes use a super harrow or a rotary harrow to help spread and incorporate residue which improves the seedbed.

PEST MANAGEMENT - Our biggest single aggravation is successful pre-plant burn down of volunteer crops and weeds. I don't have answers, just lots of ugly examples of failures. We have been more successful with burn down for fall seeding. For spring planting, we have been applying chemicals in both the late fall and just prior to seeding. In this case, we are tending to trade green bridge activity for a uniform crop-weed start.

Regular in-crop weed control has also changed for us. We have had difficulty adjusting to the timing and weed spectrum shift when not using pre-plant tillage. Weeds are different and bigger plus we have fewer options and a narrower window for success. Pest management in new alternate crops is made difficult by lack of chemicals or registrations. Our chemical representatives are not experienced in these problems, so advice from them is limited.

Hint - Other pests like mice, slugs, gophers, I can't even deal with yet, call ORKIN!

I feel the biggest contribution chemical companies could make for the direct seeding U.S. farmer is to lower the price of glyphosate based burn-down products to the level the rest of the North and South American producers are paying so we could afford higher rates and multiple applications.

OTHER DIFFICULTIES WE HAVE HAD OR WHY TO AVOID DIRECT SEEDING!

  1. Finding rotational crops that make money and figuring out how to grow, harvest and market them.
  2. Equipment is expensive, complex, takes a lot of power to pull, cumbersome in tight quarters, and high maintenance.
  3. Difficulty in finding one drill for all applications.
  4. One chance to get it right and mistakes really stand out.
  5. Where you would like fertilizer and seed versus where you can get it are not the same.
  6. Hills and high residue double the challenge.
  7. Price of change - hardware revisions and trying alternate crops are costly.
  8. Chemical dependence; it is an absolute must to have one or more excellent sprayers.
  9. Higher level of management and employee capabilities.
  10. Landlord acceptance.

SO WHY DO IT? WHAT WE THINK WILL HAPPEN WHEN WE ARE SUCCESSFULLY DIRECT SEEDING!

  1. Savings in time, crop inputs and equipment expense.
  2. Improvement in soil stability, quality, and moisture-holding capacity that should translate into yield increases.
  3. Personal fulfillment in accomplishing a difficult goal. I was tired of doing the same old thing!
  4. Give the boys at the coffee shop something to talk about!

SIDE BAR

VIsions COoperatively, a group effort----

I belong to a group of four individuals that was formed to help analyze and improve the management of our farms. We have compared and discussed almost every aspect of our operations. We also own and lease in various combinations most of our no-till hardware plus various other tools and equipment. This relationship has had tremendous value to all of us and I have been asked why we are successful. This is what I think it takes to make a good group-

Characteristics of A Good Member

  1. Have common goals.
  2. Be ready to participate equally, both physically and financially.
  3. Must be in a position to make informational contributions and decisions without checking with anyone but your boss (Life Partner)!
  4. Must trust and respect each other.
  5. Be open and truthful. No coffee shop B.S.
  6. Families that get along is a bonus.
  7. Keep the group small.
  8. Make arrangements formal. Form an entity with rules of engagement, disengagement and winding down.

Danger Areas -

  1. Keep Information Confidential!
  2. Have the "WE" not "I" perspective.
  3. Be flexible and ready to compromise when using jointly owned equipment.
  4. Keep up with usage and financial accounting.

What I Have Personally Gained -

  1. Three good friends, for both business and personal relations. This very much includes our wives.
  2. Lots of farm management information and an incentive to use it.
  3. The financial resources to try a variety of different equipment.

Finally, The Plow - Why I Need IT!

As the Vice President says in the FFA Creed, "The plow is the symbol of labor and tillage of the soil", so until we can get them to change the symbol to a Direct Seed Drill, you better have one to prove you are a real farmer!