Direct Seeding and Annual Cropping in the Low
and Intermediate Rainfall Zones
ADirect Seeding in 40% + Slopes and 15- to 20-inch Rainfall@
John E. Aeschliman
JEA Farms LTD, Colfax, Washington
I was raised on a farm like many of you and was taught the work ethic - stewardship of the land, and faith in God, by my parents who beforehand were taught by their parents, and hopefully, my wife and I have taught our children. Dad used to say, AYou take care of the land, and the land will take care of you.@ I know he learned that saying and many others from his father because he spoke of them often. My grandparents came with their brothers and sisters in the late 1870=s from Switzerland and settled in the community on the farm where we now live. When they arrived, they were like many others, I suppose; foreigners from a far away land, practically penniless, and spoke no English, only German. Grandfather was married and with one child when they came to America. When he retired, there were 9 children total. My Dad was the youngest of 7 sons with 2 sisters younger than he. When grandfather died at the age of 85, he had provided a start for each of his seven sons with approximately a half section of ground of their own. Quite an accomplishment, I feel! Only in America! I didn=t know grandfather at all because he died when I was 5 years old. He was a cooper by trade. He made wagon wheels and barrels, built several of the barns and houses in the community, and also did community blacksmithing. Dad ended up with the homeplace of 320 acres, and he and mother raised 4 children of which I am the only boy. Cory, my son, and I farm this land and several thousand other acres south of Colfax. The rainfall on the southern end of our farms ranges from 15-18 ins., and on the northern end, 18-20 ins. annually. The last 2 years have been wet, with around 25+ ins. of rainfall. A lot of what we farm has hillsides in excess of 40% slope, and a few challenging ones up to 50%+ slope. Our soils range between four types including Palouse and Athena silt loams, and Palouse Thatuna and Covello silt loams. Our soil is deep in most places, but we have some shallow soils next to the Snake River canyon. The top soil is deep in the draws and on the hilltops for the most part, but the hillsides have taken a beating from the many years of mowboard plowing which led to heavy erosion (before direct seeding!).
Prior to converting to direct tillage, we were raising peas and lentils in our rotation, but we found that our wheat yields following them would suffer most years because of not enough moisture. Also, the added cost of raising peas and lentils, we felt, was not normally offset by a good enough market price. With the added moisture savings by not tilling the ground, we were doing better money-wise and time-wise by staying with grain crops, even when doing it conventional. Presently, we raise winter wheat, spring wheat and spring barley. Part of our rotation some of the time is determined by weather conditions, weed pressures, and commodity prices. Lately, with all the rain, we use winter wheat, spring barley, then either winter wheat, spring wheat or chem fallow, depending on the above mentioned. We try to plant as much fall crop as possible to lighten the load for spring work. These types of rotations are similar to other farmers in the area, except for the larger percentages of direct seeding, including the usage of chem fallow, with high residue levels at seeding time.
Our direct seeding experiences basically started in the early 70=s. With a farm of only 320 acres, the expense of owning a direct seed drill was prohibitive, so I had it custom seeded. I used several kinds of drills through the years, including a Comfort King, a Yielder 15-20, AOld Yeller@ - the prototype to the Comfort King and Yielder drills, a modified Haybuster, and a JD air seeder to mention a few. Our tillage practices before direct seeding were basically like our neighbors, you know, 9 to 10 times over the ground for a spring crop. If it were peas, we would either fall plow, or disc and chisel, then in spring, cultivate, cross cultivate, Fargo, rodweed, seed, 10-bar harrow, roll and apply P.E. If it was barley or spring wheat, we would generally disc and chisel in the fall, then in the spring, 10-bar harrow, cultivate, cultivate the worst a second time, fertilize, rodweed, seed, and fargo pulling a 10-bar harrow. The expense in both time, money, and loss of soil due to both tillage erosion and water erosion in our steep hills drove me to consider alternative farming methods such as minimum till or no-till. We tried many things to cut operations at first, like applying Fargo with a cultivator the 2nd time over, or applying Fargo with a harrow at the end. We began to use Roundup first, then skip the rodweeding and apply fertilizer with a cultivator after we and a neighbor built two 1500 gal. Backpackers with 105= sprayer wings. We also put a tank on our JD 8200 drills so we could apply starter fertilizer. All the time growing in size and doing more and more direct seeding as we discovered how to adapt this system to our soil types, rainfall, and steep hills. In 1990, we had an opportunity to buy, with a neighbor, a 13-20 end wheel Yielder drill which we pulled with our D6-C LGP tractor. The wheels on the end are adjustable forward and back to either increase or decrease tongue weight. For a crawler, it is important to get the weight off the dead axle. It=s not necessary to fill the drill full, but if you do, the drill will weigh in the neighborhood of 48,000#s, which is fine if you are pulling it with a wheel tractor or a challenger, but not with your average crawler. Being able to carry the weight on the drill wheels and openers rather than the dead axle, allows it to be pulled with a crawler. During =90 to =96 we direct seeded 1/3 to 2 of the crop per year. Our biggest limitations to direct seeding all the crop was: a) direct seeding our steep hillsides in the spring, b) with the drill being only 13= wide, it was difficult to get over the acres to seed, in the necessary window allowed. L In the fall of 1996 we purchased a 20=L series Yielder drill with challenger tracks rather than tires to support the drill. This year, we seeded a majority of our spring and fall crop with this drill with good success. The tracks really made the difference in holding the drill on the hills.
Our main motivation for direct seeding was a desire to keep the remaining top soil where it was originally placed, and not eroding into the neighbor=s field or worse yet, into the Snake River. At the same time we wanted to cut costs and build soil quality. Erosion is very expensive. We not only lose the top soil, but the water it takes to move it. That translates into moisture that could have been used to grow the crop. Also, ditches made by the erosion are hard on equipment. Bouncing sprayers, cultivators, combines, and trucks through ditches takes its toll. After a lot of looking, reading, and trying, returning the residue back to the soil with as little cultivation as possible, has come to us to be the most practical option - both from the side of economics and from the side of soil stewardship. We must, if at all possible, pass this farm land on in better condition than we received it and direct seeding is one of the ways it can happen. What we do in the field effects all that the soil is, and can do, or not do. Not only does leaving residue on the fields almost eliminate run off, but it builds humus. Someone might say, AWell, if you leave all that straw and residue in the field every year, how can you farm?@ AWhat happens to the straw?@ Someone else might say, AWell, it doesn=t stay there forever, it rots!@ How does it rot? It gets eaten by microbes, earthworms, etc., and turned into usable plant food to grow your crops. These microbes are essential for proper nutrient balance and are vital to the natural decay system. The formation, storage, and release of all needed exchangeable nutrients comes from the part of the soil called humus. This stuff is gold! Every effort should be made to not burn the crop residue which builds humus and promotes soil life.
Keys to successful direct seeding? Perseverance! There isn=t anybody with all the answers, but there are a few things you can do to give yourself a running start. A few suggestions are: 1) start with a small acreage, depending on how large you farm; say, 50, 100, 200 acres. Then throw at it whatever money it takes to make it work. This way you can find out what works on your farm, in your rainfall area, with your seeding conditions, while you keep farming the rest of your land the way you are used to. This way, if you make a mistake, which you will do sooner or later, it won=t Aeat your lunch@ and end your farming days permanently! Remember, it takes 3-5 years of continuous direct seeding just to get your soil profile adjusted so direct seeding will work at it=s best. 2) Get someone you can trust who knows what he is talking about with direct seeding systems. He can advise you of what, when, how much, how deep, etc., etc., before you start and while you are doing it. Some of the best advisors I know are people who have been direct seeding for a lot of years and have made a success out of it. Many times, they can be hired to custom seed for you the first few years till you are comfortable enough to buy a drill of your own. This can prevent a lot of wrecks! 3) Pay attention to the AGreen Bridge@. Get the green volunteer and weeds dead 2-3 weeks prior to planting. Don=t be fooled, the pathogens are there waiting for the new plant to start so they can hop on and ride for another year. 4) Timing is everything. Spray Roundup, seed, spray herbicide, whatever, but do it in the proper window to insure good results. Mother Nature may still kick your tail occasionally anyway, but at least it won=t be because you were too late or too early with an operation. 5) Pay attention to soil temperatures. They are very important when it comes to making the direct seed systems work. 6) Pay attention to seeding rates, depths, and uniformity. Yields are often cut back because the seed was placed too deep, or at too low of a rate to allow for proper stooling. Get the seed planted in the dirt! It doesn=t do well if it is planted in the residue, especially in the lower rainfall areas. 7) Rotation - it=s a no win when you gamble with weed and disease pressure. The right rotation will help eliminate most of this risk. 8) Soil nutrient balance - more isn=t= always better. Be sure you are working with a fertilizer supplier who understands and agrees with what you are trying to accomplish and will give you the agronomic help you need to succeed. 9) Don=t quit until you succeed. Don=t be afraid to ask for help. There are qualified people available who are glad to give suggestions and answer questions. These are a few of the major things to pay attention to when getting started.
This system of farming, if done thoughtfully, should help to build our soils back and make them more profitable for the coming generations. I think as costs continue to rise and competition in the market place increases, we are going to need a system of farming that will allow us to farm more land with the same amount of labor or the same amount of land with less labor. Direct seeding has the potential to do both.