Grower Experiences with Direct Seeding in
Higher Rainfall Annual Cropping Regions
Our farm is located east of Genesee, ID in Latah and Nezperce counties. We currently have 2800 acres of cropland that includes a range of soil types from the rim area on the breaks of the Clearwater River approximately 10 miles east of Lewiston that is generally moderately sloping with predominately south exposure and deep loam soils with areas around the canyon edges that have shallow soil depth, to rock and parcels north of this area that are more rolling topography typical of the Palouse region with exposed clay soils on the ridges and deep loam soil on the lower slopes and draw bottoms. Average rainfall is around 22 inches per year. We have been in various annual cropping rotations for 25 years with the only idle ground for farm program requirements.
Fall wheat is the most important contributor to income on our farm. We also raise spring wheat, spring barley, pulse crops (smooth dry green and yellow peas, Austrian winter peas, pardina lentils, and garbanzos), grass seed, and mustard. This fall we planted some winter canola and we also have experimented with corn production for 2 years. The most common rotation on our farm from the 1970's through the late 80's was predominately a 2 year winter wheat-spring pulse with that changing in the last 10 years to mostly a 3 year winter wheat, spring grain, spring pulse and most recently looking at a possible 4 year rotation with more fall seeded crops.
In the last 25 years we have gone from a conventional tillage system that included moldboard plowing nearly all the grain stubble to a predominately 2 pass system for seeding all fall crops and replacing the plow with either a chisel or cultivator in the fall. We have been lengthening our rotation and moving toward what I call a scratch and seed system for planting spring crops. Equipment upgrades in the last few years have allowed us to accelerate our intention to eliminate the moldboard plow and we will be trying a low disturbance no-till air seeder this spring in hopes of eliminating all the tillage implements on our farm.
Our drills or seeding equipment has evolved from the standard double disc opener on conventional drills on a set of 8300 John Deere to a set of Great Plains end wheel double disc on 7 inch spacing which had offset opener blades and packer wheels to a set of 455 John Deere on 10 inch row spacing which we currently use. We have rented or had custom seeding done with several one-pass fertilizer and seed drills through the years. Nearly all of the one-pass seeded acreage has been seeding fall wheat following a spring pulse crop with the exception of the no-till corn we have done following winter wheat the past 2 years. Our intention this spring is to plant part of our pulse crops and spring grain with a 30 foot John Deere model 1850 air seeder with 10 inch row space and a 195 bushel tow between cart. We will be using the air seeder in both a direct seed situation into standing stubble and into ground that has been either chiseled or cultivated last fall. The spring grains we seed with this system will need another fertilizer pass to accomplish the fertilizer needs because the 1850 has only starter capability in the factory equipment. If this drill works satisfactorily this spring, we'll be looking at adding deep band capabilities for the fall seeding season.
As I mentioned earlier a goal on our farm is to eliminate the need for tillage equipment. There are two reasons for hoping to achieve this goal. The first reason is I think for my farm to be competitive on cost of production with other dryland crop regions of the world I'm going to have to improve my labor and equipment efficiency by going over the ground fewer times. One second reason is that I think our current tillage based crop production system on much of the annual cropping region of the inland Northwest is causing a loss in soil quality that will make profitable crop production more difficult over time. The obvious side benefit of reducing tillage in our farming practices is the huge positive impact we can have on both air and water quality in our region. If we can successfully master direct seed systems without burning stubble we are not only going to sustain the long term productivity of our farmland base but also improve air and water quality for everybody in our region. The collective impact we as farmers have on the landscape in our region is very significant.
As we have evolved in our tillage and crop production system through the years there are two factors that I think have had the biggest impact on the success or failure of reduced till and direct seed systems in our region. Seed placement capabilities of the planting equipment and length and diversity of crop rotation in my view are the most important factors that we are currently dealing with. Our region is still struggling with adaptation of planting equipment that will give consistent seed to soil contact under high residue conditions on steep ground. Also, the traditional two year fall wheat-pulse crop rotation has disease problems that intensify as tillage is reduced and soil surface residue levels increase. Moving to a three year or longer rotation in my view is very important in minimizing disease and pest impacts on profitable crop production.
It appears to me that we are getting close to achieving some success with continuous direct seed systems in our region. The fact that we have much more interest by growers, equipment dealerships, chemical and fertilizer retailers, commodity organizations, and researchers in making direct seed systems work is going to greatly improve the chances for success. We have a need to evaluate rotations and crop sequencing which would justify joint funding in a systems approach by most commodity commissions in the PNW. I also think a good argument could be made for the investment of state and federal clean air and water quality funding to help ensure the successful implementation of direct seed systems.