Profit & Stewardship
Thursday, December 1, 2011
filed under: Minimum Till/No-Till
There are two primary reasons why Dan Schultz plants any crop on his northwest Kansas farm. The first is obvious and comes with a near-term motive: profit potential. The other is less visible and more long-term in nature: will a given crop have a beneficial impact on his soil’s health.
Those dual priorities lay behind the Sheridan County farmer’s initial decision to become a no-till producer back in the early 1990s. He’s been a 100% no-till farmer since the mid-’90s, with some of his fields not having had any tillage since 1992. Since his herbicides, fungicides and insecticides are custom applied, the only equipment he currently owns are planters, combines and trucks.
Diversification of his crop rotation also has become part and parcel of the Shultz farm management system. “We view our rotations as a ‘buffet,’ ” he remarks. “We can raise corn, sorghum, soybeans, wheat, confection sunflower, oil ’flowers and cover crops. So we’re going to that ‘buffet line’ and figuring out which rotations work best in our environment.”
The dryland portion of the Schultz farm, like that of so many others across the High Plains, was basically wheat-fallow as of a few decades ago. Corn was the dominant crop on most of their irrigated ground. “As our acreage grew, we were finding ourselves shorter and shorter on time to get all the tillage done,” Dan relates. “There were some farms around here doing no-till [during the 1980s] and doing it very well, given the chemicals and equipment available at the time.”
That perceived savings in time, coupled with an intensified need to improve crop water use efficiency on both dryland and irrigated fields, drove the Schultz transition toward no-till. “Some of our first no-till fields weren’t very pretty,” he allows. “But we stayed the course. And as better equipment and better herbicides have become available, it all seemed to fit together.”
Schultz has been growing sunflower since the latter 1990s. Though he’ll occasionally plant oils, most of his acreage through the years has been in confections. He previously followed corn in the rotation to take advantage of sunflower’s ability to utilize deep residual nitrogen. Now he plants his sunflower into wheat stubble — tall wheat stubble left by the combine’s stripper head. “I never want to put my soils at risk of not having enough residue,” he explains. “Wheat stubble has a high carbon-to-nitrogen ratio and takes a long time to decay. So a lot of that stubble will still be available even after the [next year’s] sunflower harvest.” The tall stubble likewise aids weed management in his sunflower. “It ends up being a ‘mat’ between the sunflower rows, helping to suppress the weeds,” he says.
Palmer amaranth and populations of glyphosate-resistant kochia rank atop Schultz’s current weed concerns. But he’s relying on no-till and rotation to stay ahead of problems. “We’re finding that the longer we’re in a complete no-till system, our weed pressure continues to get less and less due to the reduced weed seed bank. The percentage of viable weed seeds is lower because we’re not ‘replanting’ them with tillage. We used to find that any time we disturbed the soil, our amaranth pressure increased. We were basically replanting those seeds.”
Rotational diversity also helps rein in the weeds. “Very seldom will I run crops back to back — corn on corn or wheat on wheat, for example,” Schultz says. A sequence of a cool season grass (wheat) followed by a warm season broadleaf (sunflower), which in turn is followed by a warm season grass (sorghum) has worked well to interrupt weed cycles, he adds. “Our best weed suppression is the previous crop.”
Though his confections are typically planted into ample wheat residue, Schultz doesn’t use trash whippers or residue managers on his John Deere planter. “We’re patient,” he says. “We don’t go out and plant in the morning when it’s cool and damp. And we don’t plant fast. We know that [the planting] operation determines everything else that happens through the year, so we take our time.”
Seed drop on his confection fields is around 16,500 per acre on irrigated and about 13,000 on dryland. Good seed singulation is critical for consistent stands. “You want evenly spaced seeds,” Schultz affirms. “I don’t like doubles. I’ll take a skip over a double with confections.”
On the center-pivot irrigated confections, “my first hurdle is to get them up and the herbicide watered in,” Schultz says. Along with preplant burndown treatments on the wheat stubble, his typical sunflower herbicide program is a tank mix of Spartan and Prowl, applied through the pivot. “But it depends on the weed pressure,” he relates. In some years, that Spartan/Prowl application hasn’t been necessary.
The western Kansas producer says he gets his “biggest bang for my watering dollar” by irrigating his confections at bud stage. With a good soil moisture profile, that’s often his only irrigation treatment the entire season.
“We fertigate everything,” he adds. “A large percentage of our fertility is put on through the pivots.”
Sunflower head moth is Schultz’s only significant insect problem — and he stays on top of it. “When we first started raising sunflower, the recommendation was to start spraying for head moth at 5% bloom,” he says. “Now, I’d rather be too early than too late. As soon as we see ray petals starting to open, we’re out there [scouting and spraying]. In confections, our largest seeds are around the outside rim of the head; so if we wait too long, that’s where we’ll have the most damage.”
A timely first head moth treatment tends to alleviate the need for additional insecticide applications. “In all the years we’ve raised ’flowers, I’ve never sprayed twice,” Schultz says.
The Kansan also has penciled in a fungicide application as a standard sunflower plant health input. “I used to think fungicides didn’t offer us much,” he relates. “But a few years ago, I told my aerial applicator, ‘Spray 40 acres of that 165-acre circle — and don’t tell me where. At harvest, if there’s a benefit, I’ll pick it up on the yield map.’ There was little rust pressure that year, but I definitely knew where the strip was. So that convinced me to make [a fungicide application] a regular tool in our toolbox.”
Harvest-time sunflower moisture contents can drop rapidly in the High Plains. Schultz, for one, is a proponent of taking sunflower seeds off at a higher moisture, storing them and turning on the air. “I feel ’flowers need to be cut at 14%, sometimes even wetter,” he says. “You penalize yourself if you try to harvest at or below 10% because of the likelihood of higher field loss, more risk of fires and higher FM. And if you deliver below 10%, you’re penalizing yourself since that’s the moisture standard elevators pay on — so you ‘lose’ tonnage by coming in lower.
“When my confection ’flowers are ready, we’re going to cut ’flowers,” he affirms. “I’ll let everything else stand. If the corn happens to lean a little, I can still get underneath and pick it up. But if the ’flowers get blown down, I lose a lot. So they’re moved to the front on my ‘to-do’ list.”
Schultz, a Red River Commodities dealer, also serves as a receiving station in some years for confections contracted to the company. He’s an advocate for more sunflower growers storing the crop on their own farm, but knows that can be a tough sell in his area. “Everybody likes their bins to be full of corn,” he admits. “To convince a grower that maybe his best return per acre would be to put ’flowers in there instead of corn is a hard sell because many people don’t view sunflower as a primary crop.”
While he’s very comfortable, after two decades, with being a 100% no-till producer, Dan Schultz isn’t sitting still. He’s currently focusing on the benefits of cover crops — finding which ones will work best on his farm and how to best manage them for the most benefit.
His cover crop interest germinated several years ago while attending a no-till conference in Salina, Kan., where the topic was on the agenda. “My initial thought was, ‘I average 19 inches of rainfall. Why would I want to plant a crop that would take moisture from my next crop? If I’m east of Salina and get 23 inches, it might work.’ ”
Further investigation, however, convinced him that a cover crop could make sound sense on his Sheridan County fields. “Instead of taking a field of corn or milo stalks that we harvested last fall and spray them all year, why don’t we put something there to shade that ground and protect it,” he asks, “while also contributing to the next crop’s nutrient needs and offering some weed suppression against resistant kochia?”
While a rain-laced fall and heavy workload didn’t allow time to plant any cover crops this year, it’s in his projections for 2012 — perhaps rye or triticale, maybe mixing in a legume or brassica for the nutrients they can provide the following crop.
Schultz’s belief is that planting a cover crop — and then terminating its growth before it goes into the reproductive stage — doesn’t require a lot of water. “We’re basically ‘trading’ water,” he ventures. “But yet we’re gaining some nutrients, if we have legumes in the mix; we’re getting some weed suppression; and soil organic matter improves.
“Granted, it takes more management. But the positives outweigh that,” he states.
“My ultimate goal is to leave the soil in better condition than when I first took over managing it,” summarizes Dan Schultz. “I think that should be everyone’s goal.
“The demand for food is only going to increase, and I believe we can meet that demand in a smart way — by realizing that soil is more than just something we walk on. There’s a whole universe down there. When we understand that, we look at it differently.
“It’s a great time to be in ag — and I’m extremely excited about what we can do and where we can go with rotations and no-till.”
— Don Lilleboe