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Weathering Drought

Monday, February 3, 2003
filed under: Optimizing Plant Development/Yields

Lloyd Klein, Steve Pfeifer, and Tim DeKrey all had crops affected by drought last year. Still, all three agree that’s no reason to give up on weed control. “Don’t ever walk away from a field because it’s too dry,” says Pfeifer, McLaughlin, S.D. “It’ll be well worth your money to keep those fields clean.”

Pfeifer joined Klein, who farms near Elgin, N.D., and DeKrey, Steele, N.D., in discussing how they managed drought conditions last summer, and their plans if drought persists this year, in a producer meeting this winter near Mandan, N.D., sponsored in part by the National Sunflower Association.

Last year was the first that Pfeifer ever purchased crop insurance. “We always figured that with our no-till ground, we’d be better off paying more attention to fertilizer and weed control than spending $6 or $7 an acre on crop insurance,” he says. “We’re glad we had it, and we’ll certainly have it this year, and probably increase the coverage a bit.” It’s advisable to get insurance that at least covers farm inputs, he says.

No-till farming in 2002 paid for itself, Pfeifer says emphatically. Crop insurance was triggered on sunflower he planted on new acreage he just began farming last year that had been tilled and had some weed problems—it was just several hundred pounds from being zeroed out. On the other hand, some of his no-till sunflower yielded close to 1,800 lbs/ac. Overall, his sunflower yielded about 1,400 lbs/ac. “Sunflowers are pretty hardy, even in drought.”

Pfeifer says early season weed control is critical in sunflower. “Keep that ground clean until you seed it, and make sure you have a preplant herbicide of some sort down. That alone will get you 500 lbs every time.”

He uses a broadleaf herbicide with good residual effectiveness in the previous year’s small grain crop, to help with weed control for the next year’s ‘flowers. In the spring, he applies glyphosate on sunflower ground as a burndown twice; several weeks before planting and then shortly after planting. “If you use Prowl, and I do, don’t ever think control will be 100%—there’s nothing out there that is. So you need to come back and clean up those grasses.” He does, applying Select for grassy weed control.

Good seed to soil contact at planting is also essential, he says. “You can’t grow sunflower if the seed is laying in straw or hairpinning,” which occurs when residue is not cleanly cut, but simply pushed into the ground. Proper equipment that is calibrated makes a difference, he says. Some planting equipment does a better job than others, and he points to his own equipment as an example: the seed to soil contact with his John Deere 1850 air seeder just doesn’t seem to be as good as what he gets with the Case IH SDX 30 no-till drill. “Last year we went across the end of a field with a yield monitor and the yield fell right in half where we went with the air seeder.”

He also plants with a John Deere 7200 corn planter with residue managers to clear residue away from the coulters. “Those residue managers help a lot to clear away straw and get that seed in the ground.”

Controlling Weeds, Minimizing Soil Disturbance

DeKrey says he started the 2002 growing season with about 5” of stored soil moisture in small grain stubble, and 2” in row crop stubble. “Most research suggests that the probability of getting a crop with less than 3” of stored soil moisture is poor, but we went ahead and seeded anyway.”

His experience with weed problems during the last significant drought that affected his farm, 1988-89, prompted DeKrey to continue to manage weeds appropriately last year. “We decided that spraying would be a small cost compared to spending half the fall out there with a dump rake, raking up kochia and thistles.”

His spring wheat last year yielded the best last year on fallow, at 28 bu/ac. It yielded 14 bu/ac recropped on the previous year’s small grain, and 6 bu/ac on sunflower ground.

Despite the dry conditions, DeKrey’s sunflower last year averaged mostly 1,100-1,200 lbs/ac, up to 1,500 lbs on fields that followed small grains, and that were fallowed the year before that. His no-till sunflower yielded about 500 lbs better than fields that saw some tillage.

DeKrey’s crop rotation this year will remain largely the same, although he’ll replace spring wheat with durum that has a better loan rate, and malting barley, which has good contract prices this year. He’s analyzing his crop insurance options, and will buy products that offer the best revenue and production guarantee for his farm.

For preplant weed control in sunflower, he’s going to apply and incorporate Sonalan with a heavy harrow, and plant with a row crop planter. He didn’t apply any anhydrous ammonia last fall, and doesn’t plan to apply any this spring either. “To minimize moisture loss, we’ll broadcast and apply dry fertilizer as we seed.”

Along with oil sunflower, DeKrey will plant some confection acreage too, “just being optimistic that next summer will be better.”

Taking Advantage of Carryover N

One of Klein’s responses to last year’s drought might seem surprising at first glance—he bought a second combine and a no-till drill. However, investing in capital purchases at the right price, at the right time, and for the right reasons can make sense, he says.

“We had been using a lot of custom cutting, and we can’t afford to pay custom cutters if we don’t have a big crop.” Still, Klein has more acres than one combine can cover alone. “So we’ll keep what we were budgeting for custom cutting at home and build equity, and have another combine for years to come.”

Klein hopes to conserve precious moisture by using the additional no-till drill. “We’ll do a portion of the spring planting with the no-till drill, and the rest will still be done with my Concord as a minimum till operation,” he says.

To add injury to insult, what little rain that fell on some of Klein’s crops last summer came with hail. His spring wheat yields averaged just over 10 bu/ac, and his sunflower averaged about 600-700 lbs, varying from 250 to 1,250 lbs. “With the cattle, we did a lot of pasture rotation to stretch what grass there was, and weaned early last fall.” Klein has an adequate hay supply to get through this winter, but getting a good hay crop next summer to replenish supplies will be critical. “If it looks like we’re running short, we’ll plant forage crops to use for hay,” he says. “We’re going into the summer with the same number of cows we normally stock, but we’ll be prepared to liquidate some cows if we have to.”

Klein will analyze his crop insurance options and take the best guarantees to protect against drought loss this year. He’ll use soil test results to guide fertilizer application decisions, and it’s likely that drought-affected fields will have some nitrogen carryover this spring. Often, with crop growth limited by the dry soil conditions, applied and mineralized soil N isn’t fully utilized. Last year’s carryover N thus becomes available for this year's crop. “With a shortage of subsoil moisture, we’ll probably lower our yield goals as well this spring, which would require less fertilizer.”

Sunflower is one of the best crops at utilizing available soil nitrogen. See the article “Nimble Nabbers of N,” online at Click on the link “Especially for Producers,” then “magazine” and “archives.” The article can be found under the fertility heading.—Tracy Sayler
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