Experiences with Direct Seeding and Annual Cropping

in a Low Rainfall Zone

William R. Jepsen
Heppner, Oregon

Farm Overview

The land I farm is located 18 miles west of Heppner, Oregon. It consists of 3009 acres of leased crop ground, of which 659 acres is in CRP. My father farmed the home place for over forty years before I took over. I am now raising my family in the same house that I grew up in. I feel a responsibility to be the best possible steward of the land with the resources God has given me. The annual rainfall is approximately 12 inches, with a low of 7.4 inches and a high of 17.75 inches over the last 36 years. The soils are primarily Valby Silt Loam and Rhea Silt Loam with a depth of 2.0 to 3.0 feet and slopes up to 27%. Steeper ground is currently in CRP. Almost 100% of the land is classified as highly erodible. Wind erosion is not severe, but water erosion- especially frozen ground runoff- is a major problem. Most of the farm has a combination of graded and level terraces to help with erosion control.

History

The bulk of the farm ground in this area is in a winter wheat/fallow rotation and has been for years. Conventional tillage on my farm has consisted of a spring application of Round-Up. This is followed by two passes with a chisel plow. Anhydrous ammonia is applied during one of the passes. The ground is cultivated and weeded once before harvest. Seeding with Split Packer HZ drills is completed in mid September.

Even though this winter wheat/fallow strategy has worked in the past, several major problems were increasing in severity. Erosion had been reduced significantly from the pre-terrace moldboard days, but soil was still being lost at a rate faster than it was being produced. Soil organic matter and overall quality had been steadily declining. Disease pressures were building and annual grasses were getting out of control. Jointed Goatgrass was an especially tough problem to deal with. These problems were forcing me to rotate to spring crops, but historically spring crops never yielded as well as winter varieties in our dry area. I began experimenting with banding fertilizers containing N, P, and S with the seed. The results were exciting and many times I was able to raise crops, even annual crops, with yields similar to winter wheat. About the same time, the Freedom to Farm Act removed the planting restrictions which opened the door for continuous cropping. If an annual crop system was going to work in eastern Oregon, it would have to be an extremely efficient system that conserved every drop of moisture and made it available for the crop to use. This would have to be a direct seed system.

Purchasing a Drill

After researching no-till systems and seeding one year with a Concord Drill the search was on to purchase a drill. To me, the ideal no-till drill is one that has the following characteristics:

In the spring of 1997 I took a trip to Saskatchewan, Canada. After looking at just about every commercial drill available working in the field and visiting with farmers, the choice was made to buy a Conserva Pak drill. I purchased a 40 foot unit with 12 inch row spacing. A Flexicoil 2320 tow between air cart was acquired to deliver the seed and fertilizer. The drill is presently rigged up for all dry fertilizer and is pulled by a D-5B 26X crawler. The tractor pulls the drill easily in 5th gear at 4.7 miles per hour.

Seeding Last Spring and this Fall

Most of the direct seeding with the Conserva Pak was into spring barley stubble and winter wheat stubble. The crops grown were primarily spring barley, spring wheat, and mustard. Variety trials of flax, canola, garbanzo beans, lentils, various barleys, and dark northern spring wheat were also grown. In addition, some new CRP seedings were put in. The drill was also used to seed spring wheat into summerfallow. This is another excellent use for a no-till drill, especially for making the transition from summerfallow to annual cropping.

Because of the annual grass problem on this farm, all direct seeding will be to spring crops until the ground is cleaned up. Once that is accomplished winter crops can be considered. Direct seeding an annual winter crop in this area will necessitate a later planting date. This will insure that moisture will continue to be available for the young plants to survive into winter. This year Strider barley and Gene wheat were seeded in mustard stubble along with variety trials of winter durum, Kold barley, Hybritech Quantum 7817 wheat, and Brewer lentils. The seeding date was mid November.

Rotations

In this arid part of eastern Oregon cereal crops have been about the only crops ever successfully grown. Because of this fact our inclinations are to raise intensive direct seeded cereal crops. This may or may not work on a long term basis. Successful experienced no-till farmers from Canada and the northern USA preach the need for rotations. Viable alternative crops are badly needed. More research is required in this area. At present, on this farm, mustard is the best alternative crop that can be consistently grown, but at current prices and yields it is not very profitable. For me barley is probably the best suited cereal I have found for annual direct seeding. I'm hopeful that it can also be grown year after year. I have one field that has had four successive barley crops with no noticeable yield reduction.

Fertility

Optimum fertility has been a real question mark and more research needs to be done. In the future, fertility needs to be fine tuned to soil tests, cropping history, and available spring moisture. With a direct seeding system fertilizer has become my single largest farm expense. I am currently using a urea based fertilizer primarily mixed with 16/20. Standard rates that have worked well in cereals have been 65 lbs. of N, 20 lbs. of P as P2O5, and 15 lbs. of S per acre. When seeding mustard the P was reduced by 5 lbs. and the S was increased by 5 lbs. Dry fertilizer is a nasty material to work with, especially in a damp environment. An all liquid system is currently being considered.

Weed Control

Weed control is extremely important. The sprayer has become the most used piece of equipment on the farm. You have to become an expert Round-Up applicator. When you can't rely on tillage to help the Round-Up application it has to be done just right. I have found that rates of 17 ounces per acre with ammonium sulfate have worked well. With the transition to spring crops Russian Thistles have become a major weed. Post harvest burn downs using 24-D immediately after harvest have been used the last few years. However on the ground that has now been direct seeded for two years the Russian Thistle problem has been greatly diminished and most of the ground did not need a post harvest burn down. By disturbing the ground very little for those two years and banding the fertilizer below the seed, the Russian Thistles just couldn't get a good start. That was a pleasant surprise that I hope continues to improve after multiple years of direct seeding.

Future Plans

On this farm I have dedicated a portion of the land to a direct seed system no matter what the moisture conditions. Some of the ground has been annual spring cropped for four years now with the last two being direct seeded. All the experts say it take several years for the soil structure and its moisture conserving ability to improve. After just two years there is a definite change in the soil. The best way to describe it is to compare it to walking on a thickly padded carpet verses walking on concrete at harvest time. My goal is to have the entire farm into a direct seeded annual crop system within the next few years, but I'm being conservative and the rest of the farm is going in a little slower. Making a direct seed system work requires careful management and planning. It is much more than just purchasing a drill. Many important decisions such as optimum fertilization, crop rotations, alternative crops, weed control, and winter verses spring crops, are not fully known for our area at this time. If we can make this system work in our dry area of eastern Oregon, it will virtually eliminate soil erosion and will be a truly sustainable form of agriculture.

I am certainly no expert, but if anybody wishes to contact me with questions or advice I would welcome that. My address is:

William R. Jepsen
PO Box 188
Heppner, OR 97836
Phone: (541)-676-5244
E-mail: bjepsen@ptinet.net


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