Experiences with Direct Seeding and Annual Cropping in
the Low and Intermediate Rainfall Zones
Dale Galbreath, Grower
Galbreath Land & Livestock, President
My brother Gary and I farm a little over 5,000 acres of cultivated land near Ritzville. Our ground is mostly level, receives ten to twelve inches rainfall annually, and carries the Walls Walla silt loam classification. The soil depth varies greatly from very deep to very shallow within a five mile radius.
Prior to experimenting with no-till we had farmed this ground strictly on a summerfallow rotation, stressing a good stubble mulch as much as we could.
In 1963, we drilled a few deep wells and started irrigating about 800 acres. We supplement the rainfall by adding ten to fifteen additional inches of moisture.
Crops grown in strictly dryland acres under no-till have been DNS, barley and mustard. In the irrigated acres the crops grown have been winter wheat, peas, garbanzo beans, and barley. For the past two years we've worked potatoes into the rotation.
Being fourth generation farmers in the Ritzville area, my brother and I began our farming endeavors using equipment and methods common to our area. In the late sixties following harvest we harrowed the stubble, followed in late fall with chiseling. In spring we would disc or cultivate, fertilize using a separate applicator, weed as necessary until fall planting time. Previous to no-tilling we were basically just in a wheat/summerfallow rotation, occasionally recropping barley or spring wheat for rotation reasons.
In the late eighties we stopped chiseling and started leaving stubble stand to trap snowfall. In the spring we began our work season with spraying the standing stubble with Roundup. Waiting two to three weeks to fertilize, sweep four inches in depth followed by packer to seal the ground - all in one operation. Then rod weed as necessary to control weeds until planting of winter wheat in late August or early September. For the last three years, we have compared our field of standing stubble to those adjoining fields that were chiseled or subsoiled. We found that in a six foot soil profile going into spring our field had more available moisture.
We took a long hard look at the no-till system. Some of our ground that we felt would work very well under this system is ground that is very shallow in soil profile. Every spring this ground has a full profile of moisture two to three feet deep. To take advantage of this moisture we thought that continuous cropping would be best. Under the no-till system we are trying to utilize and conserve to the best of our ability all the moisture that we receive with the least amount of soil disturbance. We have been doing the continual spring wheat cropping practice for six years. Average yield over this period is 37 bushel per acre. This yield has been from DNS. We feel white wheat varieties could yield 5 to 10 bushels per acre more on the average.
This last year we seeded yellow mustard which was very successful with a yield of 1250 pounds per acre following five continuous spring wheat crops.
We purchased a Yielder L series drill in 1991, which has the advantage of placing all your fertilizer at the time of seeding. We are currently placing some starter fertilizer with the seed, with remaining fertilizer being placed in the deep band (places fertilizer in the middle of your five inch rows of seed). we believe that this drill has the advantage of placing your fertilizer where it is needed during the year at the most economical price. I believe other manufacturers are trying to adapt to this concept. Seed depth is also important and this drill has the ability to adjust this.
We are learning more about no-tilling every year. We believe that using the direct seeding approach we are utilizing the moisture that we receive. Summerfallowing, no matter how many operations you make, disturbs the ground causing some loss of precious moisture. We believe one out of ten years we could have a freeze out to winter wheat plus there is always the risk of seeding in a dust mulch and hoping that your winter wheat will emerge before a rain that would cause crusting. I believe there is an average of six to eight operations used to make summerfallow in our area. No-till seeding, we spray and seed, thus eliminating those extra operations.
With the environment becoming more polluted and tests being done on dust particles in the air, the direct seed theory has merit, as long as the return is profitable. On our irrigated ground there has been a large increase in earthworms which indicates a healthy soil environment.
One of the best things we did to our Yielder drill was to narrow the spacing of our seed rows from ten inch to seven and one-half inch, this gave us greater plant population and better weed competition. We feel is critical in spring wheat seeding in our area.
Soil which has been previously "worked" as in conventional farming methods warms more quickly. In the spring we have probed both our previously prepared and our no-till soils and found quite a difference. When we began direct seeding we had a tendency to place seed at the same depth we had as seeding conventionally. After experimenting, we believe a more shallow placement of seed helps offset the colder ground temperature and gives quicker emergence thus getting the crop established earlier.
Straw and chaff distribution is critical to direct seeding. This requires advance planning. Straw and chaff distribution needs to take place during harvest. I, personally, believe that even distribution of straw and chaff is beneficial whether you direct seed or stay with conventional methods because it helps even out weed and volunteer wheat concentrations. Another key to a healthy stand of spring seeded crop is to wait at least two weeks to seed after applying Roundup. Longer would be better; but the logistics of the growing season usually prevent that.
We did not just jump into no-till methods from one year to the next on our whole farm. What we have done is blend our farming practices using both conventional and direct seed methods. Our farm land has many variations and we have experimented using specific methods for specific problems. What we have experienced so far in six years has been encouraging in results of soil texture, runoff is being eliminated, and better use of moisture thus allowing us to diversify more in the future as to crops grown.
In the future we hope we will see wheat varieties with greater yield potential under direct seeding. We also hope to take a look at Roundup ready crop varieties that may suit our area.