Management Changes and Reducing Inputs with Direct Seeding

Skip Mead, Dayton, WA

I have been asked what changes occur in management regarding machinery, manpower and other inputs when a farmer moves into No-Till. I want to remind everyone that the numbers that I use apply to me, and I know that each and every farmer has their own priorities when it comes to reducing costs and improving economics.

My name is Skip Mead and I farm with my father Chuck, on a dryland wheat farm located in southeastern Washington in Columbia County, 17 miles north of Dayton. This area of Columbia County is a traditional S/F area where annual precipitation ranges from 16" on our south end, to 11"near the Tucannon River on our north end. We have had some real extremes, ranging from 4" to 21". Our soils are predominately Walla Walla Loams ranging in slope from broad flat hilltops to 40% slope. Our erosion challenges usually occur in the winter, with frozen soils and heavy precipitation. We have holdings of 5000 acres of cropland and about the same acreage again, in rimrock bunchgrass pasture where we run a 200 head cow/calf operation. We also market 800 fat hogs annually, from a 40 sow farrow to finish facility.

The typical crops grown on our farm are Soft White Winter Wheat, Soft White Spring Wheat, Spring Barley and Spring Triticale. The lower rainfall zone of the ranch has been strict S/F, but I see in the future with No-Till some three-year rotation with spring barley or possibly annual spring crop. The higher rainfall end has been three-year rotation but in the future will all be annually cropped. The biggest success so far in our conversion to direct seeding was this past spring, when we raised our first dry edible pea crop that yielded 2940 lbs/acre. This crop was a real eye opener, in that these peas were grown in the low PPT zone in the county and had the best yield in a county that reaches 30 inches annual rainfall.

I had the opportunity to tour the Dakota Lakes Research Farm of Pierre, South Dakota operated by Dr. Duane Beck. His disciplines helped me to see the need to recognize the impacts of rotation and to be my own author in its development. We are in terrible need of 3- or 4-year rotation alternatives and one of the biggest obstacles facing us is that we are in one of the highest yielding winter wheat areas in the world. One prediction will be that S/F will be greatly reduced or eliminated—I guess that’s one way to reduce residue levels.

We are relative newcomers to direct seeding, in that this will be our fourth spring. For years we observed and experimented, but were never impressed enough with the equipment to take the plunge. Four years ago, I was fortunate enough to be involved with a group of growers, who, with the assistance of our Extension Agent, convinced Gus Williamson to pull his Cross-Slot Technologies Drill out of moth balls and give it another try. Three and a half years and an updated opener later, we have purchased the drill from Gus, and he has since built a new drill. I am convinced that this New Zealand opener would gain wide acceptance if it were more readily available.

I have always been confident of our tillage systems of the past regarding making a living and protecting resources. What is demanding attention now and is the subject of a lot of brain time, is the need to update or tune our operation toward No-Till, now that we have an opener that we are confident in. So, I have to update machinery, increase my annually seeded acres and reduce manpower. Sounds simple!

*Management Changes* (Plusses or Minuses)

+ Reduces need of stripcropping, thereby increasing field efficiency. We currently have 150+ miles of edge on 112 fields. Spraying Roundup is a real challenge in our windy neighborhood. Annual cropping and a growing crop, I have now realized, are the most effective tools for erosion control and efficient moisture use.

+ Replacement of tillage time with sprayer time, reduces manpower needs.

+ Eliminate contour seeding practices, reduces seed costs.

+ If manpower is reduced, employee wages can then be increased, therefore increasing our ability to maintain quality employees.

-/+ Increases work hour per day for short durations (like harvest hours).

- Currently owned tillage equipment is not operated, and invaluable for trade-in

- Requires fence maintenance during summer months (May-June), which previously were spent with S/F maintenance.

- Roundup expense is still too high for total replacement of tillage.

- Reliant on "sprayable weather", which can be exasperating.

Tool Time Acre Cost/Acre Total Cost
Roundup 5 days 1000 $8.00 $8,000
Chisel 15 days 1000 $10.00 $10,000
Cultivate 12 days 1000 $6.00 $6,000
Harrow 7 days 1000 $3.50 $3,500
Cultiweed 9 days 1000 $6.00 $6,000
Fertilize (no N) 7 days 1000 $3.00 $3,000
Cultiweed 9 days 1000 $6.00 $6,000
Seed (no seed) 10 days 1000 $6.50 $6,500
  74 DAYS   $49.00 $49,000
Tool Time Acre Cost/Acre Total Cost
Roundup/LM 5 days 1000 $8.00 $8,000
Roundup/LM 5 days 1000 $8.00 $8,000
Roundup/LM 2.5 days 500 $8.00 $4,000
Roundup/LM 5 days 1000 $8.00 $8,000
No-Till Seeding 13.5 days 1000 $20.00 $8,000
  31 DAYS   $48.00 $48,000

*Points to ponder: 1) Less than half the labor at comparable inputs.

2) Yields have been comparable.


Tool Time Acre Cost/Acre Total Cost
Plow 8 days 500 $10.00 $5,000
Cultivate 5 days 500 $6.00 $6,000
Fertilize (+N) 3 days 500 $30.00 $15,000
Harrow 3.5 days 500 $3.50 $1,750
Seed-Total 5 days 500 $15.00 $4,000
MCPA 2.5 days 500 $8.00 $4,000
  27 days   $72.50 $36,250
Tool Time Acre Cost/Acre Total Cost
Roundup 2.5 days 500 $6.00 (fall spray) $3,000
Roundup 2.5 days 500 $8.00 $4,000
Pursuit Plus     $12.00 $6,000
Thiosul     $8.00 $4,000
Seed-Total 6.5 500 $40.00 $20,000
Assert 2.5 500 $7.00 $3,500
Ansecticide Flown 500 $8.00 $4,000
  14 days   $89.00 $44,500

*Points to ponder: 1) Saved seeding time.

2) Peas would not be an alternative to us without No-Till.

3) Pea ground is a natural to seed winter wheat into.

4) Fulfilling rotational need with dry peas.