Our farm is a 4200 acre grain, legume and grass hay farm located in north central Idaho (with acreage in the Fraser farming community near Weippe and also in the Cavendish area.) Our annual precipitation averages about 28-35 inches and elevation varies between 3000 and 3800 ft. We typically have snow cover through most of the winter followed by cold wet springs and mild summers.
The ground can be described as gently rolling hills with almost 100% of our farm classified as highly erosive, due mainly to soil type, with very few hills exceeding 20% slope and 5 to 10% slope is probably the average.
Our soils in the Weippe area are called Tancy Woodland Soil, which is simply cleared timber land. Soil depth ranges from six to ten inches. Below this six to ten inches is hard clay. This type of soil does not allow for much water drainage. This is an advantage for direct till practices, but a huge disadvantage for production purposes. Nearly 15% of our acres are in grass hay production, not because we want the hay, but simply because this ground will not grow anything else. Our soils in the Cavindish area are black silt loams that average about ten to twelve inches in depth. Water drainage in this soil is much better. The only tillable ground that's in grass are a few waterways for erosion purposes, a mere 1%.
Crops and Rotation
Our farm is typically seeded 35% Soft White Winter Wheat, 35% Spring Barley and 30% Legumes. We try to put all of our fields into a three year rotation. In the past we have found this to be the most profitable. Unfortunately pea prices have forced us into nearly a 2 year crop rotation. Due to these low prices, we have only been able to put 10% of our crops into legumes. Our crop rotation typically goes from wheat to barley to a legume. If we don't have legume ground to seed wheat back onto, wheat is seeded back onto spring barley ground. We expect pea prices to rebound, and then we'll have more pea ground for seeding winter wheat.
The most significant change in rotations on our farm with direct seeding has been the elimination of summer fallow for winter wheat. All of our wheat is direct drilled into legume ground or spring barley stubble that has been preferably burned, or harrowed, depending on the amount of residue.
Tillage and Seeding Equipment
Beginning in 1992, we started direct seeding 100% of our acres. At this time we purchased our first direct seed drill. Financially we couldn't make the change slowly - tilling half and no-tilling half. It was all or nothing! Our first drill was a used 15ft. 752 John Deere equipped with a front deep band box for applying dry fertilizer 1/2" below the seed and equipped with dry starter fertilizer. We later expanded to two drills by acquiring an updated, but used 750 John Deere drill with the same options. In the fall of 1998, we traded in our first drill for the new 15 ft. 1560 John Deere drill with all of the updated features. The first drill performed well for us, but had nearly 20,000 acres on it, and down time was increasing.
Direct Seeding Benefits
The most obvious benefit to us has been the efficiency in the field. We spray once with Round-up prior to seeding and then direct seed a few days later weather permitting whereas traditional tillage practices would require at least three times the labor. The time saved by using direct seeding has allowed us to more than double our farming acreage in the last three years.
Another important benefit to direct seeding is soil health. Soil ingredients such as humus, organic matter and earth worm populations have increased tremendously in our fields in the last six years. Surface residue breakdown has allowed for excellent surface water drainage. Crops are better able to withstand extreme weather conditions such as frost heaving, heavy rains or summer drought. Before heavy rains in late spring would cause erosion, but for us the erosion factor has been nearly zero since switching to direct seeding.
Keys to Success
1. Stay on top of your herbicides - This is the only way you can direct seed. Round-up in both spring and fall is a necessity. We found heavier rates of Round-up prior to seeding has allowed us to lower rates on weed and oat herbicides. If herbicides aren't your specialty, become best friends with your local field man.
2. Soil Preparation - Burning (most preferred, if allowed), harrowing, light disking, etc. Chaff spreaders on combines are a must.
3. Seeding Conditions - Seed placement, soil moisture and fertilizer placement are just as important, if not more so, in direct seeding as in traditional practices.
4. Don't cut corners on equipment - The right drill for your area can make or break your operation. As stated above seed placement is very important.
Future of Direct Seeding
Unfortunately a lot of our future depends on whether the government puts restrictions on burning practices. In our opinion, burning is the "ace-in-the-hole" for direct seed practices. Baling and harrowing residue may work short term, but eventually disease and extreme residue build up will require tillage if burning isn't allowed. Beyond this we see direct seeding as the only future. The efficiency, yield increases, soil health are all benefits that make direct seeding the best practice for our area.