Grower Experience with Cropping Systems and Equipment
for Direct Seeding

David R. Brewer
The Dalles, OR

 

Our family farm consists of 2000 acres of mostly deep Walla Walla silt loam soils mixed with 600 acres of shallow or very steep range ground. The farm is contiguous with one end on the breaks of the Deschutes River and the other straddling Fifteen Mile Creek southeast of The Dalles. Both of these streams have steelhead runs proposed for listing. Our average annual rainfall is eleven to twelve inches. Farmed slopes vary with some hillsides over forty-five percent slope and only one thirty acre bottom not classified as highly erodible. Soil tests show an average of 1.3 percent organic matter.

This is the resource base that attracted my great great grandfather and which I manage today with my parents. Our family has had a very strong conservation ethic. My great grandfather gave up the match as a tool for managing his soils. My grandfather installed some of the first terrace systems in the area, gave up the bottom plow and adopted a mulch summerfallow program in the 1950s. My parents continued that stewardship tradition with more dams and terraces and a strict high residue mulch summerfallow system. By the 1980s they found themselves under increasing pressure from grassy weeds and ever higher herbicide bills. By 1993 we quit waiting for the miracle chemical to control our jointed goat grass problem and set out to solve it ourselves. After three years of trying bottom plowing, burning, sequential herbicide applications, fall tillage, extra tillage and late seeding, we decided that we were only managing to increase our risk of soil loss while making no long term impact on the goat grass population. About that time we had some heavy winters and top dressed our winter wheat in the spring. The top dress encouraged more goat grass production and we saw dockage as high as 2.6 percent and a thirty-three cent discount. During subsequent major storm events we saw more soil and goat grass go under the fence than we could tolerate. We had the catalyst for change.

In July 1995 we experienced freak back to back cloud bursts within twenty-four hours. NRCS personnel measured our worst soil loss at seventy tons per acre on freshly rodded stubble mulch. Some black fallow fields in the area lost well over two hundred tons per acre of top soil. In February 1996 a winter event pounded these same fields again. The following January another major event clobbered our winter wheat on summerfallow. In nineteen months Fifteen Mile Creek had left its banks and flooded through our buildings four times. It had been thirty-one years since we had seen that kind of water. As they say, "Mother Nature bats last", and it seemed to us she was making her case for change very clearly.

I describe this history to paint a picture of the environment in which we made the leap to direct seeding. In the spring of 1996 we conventionally recropped 420 acres to wheat and barley. These were the first spring crops the ranch had seen in decades. We were very pleased with the weed and erosion control, but disappointed with the required number of passes and associated moisture loss of conventional seeding. We ruined a firm moist seed bed with the disc and then did not get any measurable rain after seeding. We were convinced however that we had a win-win situation at hand if we could figure out how to direct seed spring crops to control our grassy weeds while eliminating all soil erosion at the same time.

For the spring 1997 we were unable to get a commitment from any dealers for custom seeding, so after much research, we made a leap of faith and bought a Concord 2412 semi-mount, hillside hitch drill from North Pine Ag. The drill is equipped with a liquid fertilizer system and Anderson Openers on twelve inch spacing. We chose the twenty-four foot width due to concern for handling our slopes and terraces and the fact that we were pulling the drill with a D6c crawler. We put in 740 acres of good looking Alpowa wheat that first spring. The fields averaged forty-two bushels per acre and showed marked improvement the longer the green bridge break. We had good grassy weed control with our Roundup program and decent broadleaf control with crop competition. In the fall of 1997 we used the Concord on 300 acres of high residue conventional summerfallow. The wheat looked great, but we saw more erosion than we would like for such a mild winter. The field averaged six bushels better than our comparable field seeded with the same variety of wheat, but conventionally fertilized with anhydrous ammonia and seeded with a double disc drill. We attribute that yield difference primarily to fertilizer placement.

This past spring we concentrated on getting a good two to three week green bridge break and put in 650 acres of Baroness barley and 390 acres of yellow mustard. The barley generally looked good and yielded 1.7 ton per acre of fifty-one pound barley. The mustard made a great stand, but may have been hurt by low fertility and or the early heat, as it yielded 875 pound per acre. Although the yield was a little disappointing, we still think that it pencils out better than summerfallow. We will know more when we harvest the winter wheat off those fields next summer. This fall we put in 420 acres of winter wheat, mostly on the mustard ground, and 270 acres of fall barley on chemical fallow. The chemical fallow was not a very good experience and weather permitting we will no longer use summerfallow in our rotation. We have had two small experiments with putting in winter wheat on spring cereal stubble and thus far have been disappointed. Last year we lost control of our plant population due to heavy volunteer spring wheat and this year it appears we will have a barley problem in our winter wheat on barley stubble. These experiences have given us more incentive to make a non-cereal crop work in our rotation.

Our plans for this coming spring are: 300 acres of spring barley, 700 acres of spring wheat, and 300 acres of mustard. We have upgraded our tractor to a Challenger 75d and I have been able to do all the Concord seeding and ground spraying with an eighty foot boom. Depending on weather, this next spring may require some night time seeding to fit it all in the optimum planting window. We really need some alternative crops to spread out our spring seeding window.

The cropping system we envision is very much a work in progress and may always be in flex. As all our conventional ground needs a weed cleanup, we are planning two to three years of spring grain followed by a spring mustard. We will seed winter wheat on the mustard ground and follow that crop with a flex year of winter wheat, fall barley or spring grain depending upon moisture and weed conditions. Our objective is two years of winter cereals followed by a spring cereal and a spring broadleaf. We are actively searching for a spring warm season grass that will work in our rainfall zone and allow us two years out of cereal crops. This past spring we put seventeen acres of corn in winter wheat stubble on sub-irrigated bottom ground. The Concord drill gave us adequate emergence, but poor distribution of seed. Most of the corn was a grazing variety and we stripped grazed it with forty-five calves for sixty days. I did not weigh the calves going in to the corn, but it appears that they put on three pounds per head per day for less than thirty cents per pound gained. With our beef marketing program that translates to about a $200/ac net profit. This result is encouraging us to look for forage crops that will work in our rotation and that we can harvest with our cattle rather than invest in more equipment.

We have learned a little about Management Intensive Grazing with our cattle. At this point our farming looks a lot like management intensive cropping as it gets rather complex when you truly begin to think outside the box. In addition to challenging, these changes have been fun. I feel very much in control of our destiny on the ranch and optimistic about the future. That is quite a contrast to a few years back when we were constantly fighting against something, primarily weeds, diseases and soil erosion. We are now working towards a goal of healthy productive soils and feel that we have the tools to begin that journey. We are also confident in our ability to find those pieces that we do not yet have. We have surely made mistakes, some, pretty roadside obvious, and we will undoubtedly make more. We are, however, learning from those mistakes, rather than just hoping that Mother Nature will not trump us again.

I heard David Kohl once describe intergenerational family business transfer as going through three stages: wonder, blunder and thunder. I think that we are pretty well into the blunder years and I can clearly envision the thunder part. In our operation we have changed managers, tillage system and cropping system all within a two year period. While I would not necessarily recommend that crash course, I would encourage you to look at the tools available to tackle some of these daunting problems that are hurting us as farmers in the pocket book, as well as in the arenas of public perception, and long term sustainability. My wife Margaret and I had our first child this past September. We would like him to have the opportunity to be the 6th generation of the family to harvest our hills. As we look at it, the only way we can keep the ranch in family operation is by generating wealth. When we evaluate the tools we have to generate wealth as farmers, we see our soil resource, the solar energy and moisture that land receives every year, our time and our ingenuity. We feel that sticking with the conventional winter wheat-summerfallow cropping system either wastes or does not efficiently utilize any of these wealth creating assets. Direct seeding with annual cropping and intensive rotations promises much more. To date, without yet benefiting from a true rotational crop, we have increased our production twenty-five to thirty-five percent with annual spring grains as compared to our conventional winter wheat on fallow. Direct seeding has allowed us to produce those bushels at a lower break even price. More production, grown at a lower cost, is the name of the game and should please landlords and bankers as well.


 

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