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Seed Systems in North Central Idaho
Todd Wittman Wittman Farms, Lapwai, ID
Wittman Farms is a 6900 acre dryland farm located in north central Idaho. We are a third generation farm consisting of active partners Dick, Bob, Mark, and Todd. We also have two additional full time employees.
The majority of our acreage is located in Nez Perce county, about 12 miles south and East of Lewiston. We also farm an additional 1700 acres in Lewis county between Winchester and Craigmont. We have a wide variation of elevation and precipitation levels between our Tammany farm, which is about 2,000 ft. and 14" annual precip., and our Prairie farm, which hits about 4000 ft. and 26-28" annual precip.
We also have a wide variety of terrain, ranging from flat ridge tops, to highly erodible slopes of up to 40%. Approximately 70% of our farm ground is relatively flat. The soil is mainly clay/loam with an average of 1 ½ ft. good topsoil.
We try to plant between 35 to 40 % of our acres to winter wheat, which has been an equal split between soft white, club, and hard red the past couple of years. The remainder of our acres are planted to spring barley, durum, dark northern spring wheat, lentils, garbanzos, canola, and green peas, both dry and freezers. We also have established fields of alfalfa for hay, bluegrass and fescue for seed, and grass for hay.
We try to maintain a consistent 5-year rotation, which would be winter wheat, spring wheat or barley, spring canola or other oilseed, winter wheat, spring legume. At times we deviate from this rotation for economic or agronomic reasons, with some of the fields being stuck in a two or three year rotation for a short while.
We no longer use summer fallow in our rotations, preferring to annual crop every acre. We feel with this type of rotation, we should be able to control weed problems with herbicides, and disease problems with extended rotations and crop selections.
We have been phasing out intense tillage recently, opting to direct seed or to do minimum till as opposed to plowing or chiseling. We have not moldboard plowed any acres for several years now, and the only actual tillage we still do is to disc some of the heavier SWW stubble that doesn't break down very well behind the heavy harrow.
In the past 15 years, we have experimented with 3 or 4 direct seed drills, trying to find one that suited us. The drill that we put the most acres on was a 15' JD 750 that we would rent from a neighbor to seed pea and lentil ground. It did a fair job of placing the seed in the ground as long as the fields were fairly level, but steep hillsides presented some seed depth problems. We also didn't like the hassle of using all dry fertilizer and the less than desirable placement of the nutrients.
In the spring of 1998, we partnered with Riggers Bros. from Craigmont. They provided a 33' Flexicoil hoe drill and seed cart, and we provided a Cat Challenger tractor. We seeded about 300 acres in the spring and 500 acres in the fall and it seemed to be a pretty good seeder for our operation.
In the winter of 1999, we bought a similar Flexicoil . The seed cart was a 2320 model with an Anhydrous Ammonia tank mounted on the tongue of the seed cart. The tool bar was a 33' 5000 model hoe drill set up with Anderson openers. What made this more attractive to us was the fact that we were already set up for self-service with A.A., and it was also our preference for a nitrogen source. When we brought this in to our shop in the winter of 1999, we mounted a 750 gallon A.A. tank and were basically field ready.
The seeder worked quite well for us, but we did encounter some problems that were operator errors. The biggest problem we faced was uneven emergence due to the drill not being properly leveled. Of course I didn't realize this until I seeded about 1000 acres! Anyway, the crop still turned out pretty good at harvest time and we were bound and determined to make this machine the ideal direct seeder for us.
One of the ideal scenarios for our "no-till" drill was to have a fertilizer setup that would not only deep-band the N, but would also place the phosphate and sulfur below the seed zone. The Anderson opener was already A.A. capable, so we welded another stainless steel tube behind to carry the solution. This made it an excellent point for fertilizer placement, with the anhydrous providing our N deep, and the solution giving us the capability to place 50% of the P and S deep, and the other 50% with the seed by using 16-20 for starter.
Now that we had the cart before the horse, we had to figure out how to mount a 500-gallon solution tank on an already cluttered seed cart. We considered putting it on the tool bar frame, but didn't want to stress it with that much additional weight. After mulling this over for a couple of days, we figured we could extend the main frame off the back of the cart and mount our S.S. tank. We would have to modify the ladder and platform on top of the cart, if we could mount the tank without compromising the original engineering of the cart with that much additional weight. We figured we could do that by carrying less product in all the tanks.
It probably took us a month to do all the modifications to the air cart, but when the project was completed, we felt very comfortable with the improvements. There was no doubt in our minds that this would improve the agronomics of our seeding system.
of Direct Seeding
There were several reasons we wanted to direct seed the majority of our acres. The most obvious being a reduction in soil erosion by using less tillage. We also wanted to increase the efficiency of our labor force, by spending less time sitting in the seats of our tractors plowing under the stubble, and trying to make it smooth enough by cultivating numerous times in the spring to have a level seedbed. This would also put fewer hours on our tractors and reduce the wear and tear on our tillage equipment. We were also hoping to decrease our fuel consumption.
Some of the "freebies" that come with reduced tillage and direct seeding is an increase in organic matter, and better soil porosity which increases water infiltration. This decreases the chance of surface crusting after heavy spring rains, and less frost heaving in the winter because the soils are not as saturated with moisture. With a desirable rotation, we feel we can break up the life cycles of some soil-borne diseases.
We do not believe that we are giving up any yield potential with our current direct seeding system. In fact, over the past few years, we have had above average yields, although Mother Nature deserves a lot of the credit for ideal growing conditions.
Plan ahead. The first thing we try to do is choose a rotation that will allow us to direct seed into the previous crops residue without much trouble. Legumes and oil seeds are a no brainer, but when re-cropping cereals, beware of contrasting classes in your next years crop if you can't get a good spray job or winter kill on volunteer grains. If we need to recrop cereals, we try to match classes, such as hard-red winter on dark-northern spring ground.
Manage residue. When harvesting high residue crops, everyone knows that it is imperative to spread the chaff and straw rows as evenly as possible. We accomplish this with chaff spreaders and aggressive after-market straw choppers that pulverize the straw. This works as long as the crop is mature and you don't have a bunch of green straw under the mature head, as is the case in some high moisture years.
We also utilize a heavy harrow on all of our oil-seed and cereal grains after harvest. We have found it to be most beneficial when you can harrow the stubble 3-5 days after harvest when the temperature is above 80 degrees. We started out with a 50' Flexicoil harrow, but switched to a 50' Degleman this year because of the ability to adjust height, down pressure, and tine angle with hydraulic ease on the go.
Minimize volunteer growth. Your sprayer may well be the most used piece of equipment on your farm when direct seeding. In a perfect season, after a timely harvest and you have all of your fields harrowed, a substantial amount of rain can really keep your sprayer busy. As was the fall of 2000, we had ideal weather for green-up, and our sprayer was busy applying Round-up on every acre we farm. We try to spray all of the acres that are going to be fall seeded first, and then we do the remaining acres that will over winter as stubble fields. It is time and money well spent to spray out the volunteer grains and grassy weeds that tend to sod in and hinder a direct-seeding machine.
Be patient. One of the things a farmer loves to see is his winter wheat crop go into winter big and healthy. A direct seeded field is not going to be as pretty as a wheat on fallow field, although it is probably going to yield comparably if managed properly for pests and has adequate fertility.
We believe that to have a future in farming, we need to be the primary stewards of our farms. We cannot afford to have our soil become less productive, or to lose valuable topsoil to erosion. That is why we feel we must move forward in our pursuit to make direct seeding work on all of our acres every year. Take advantage of the organic matter that is a result of less tillage, so that the process of carbon sequestration can take place and combat the negative images that have followed production agriculture. The more we can do to increase water quality due to our good farming practices, the less likely it will be that we as ag producers can be cast as polluters of the environment. I believe that direct seeding can have the greatest impact of any practice in the role of reducing or eliminating soil erosion.