Monday, November 19, 2012

Jack Rabbits

I wrote this back in late September or early October, I was waiting to find that perfect picture to accompany it and with the chaos of fall farm work; wheat seeding along with harvesting corn, soybeans and grain sorghum this got put on the back burner. I was inspired to post it while watching Ken Burn's Dust Bowl, this isn't about the dust bowl but it does include a story passed to me from my Granddad.

The other day my youngest son was riding in the tractor with me when I was seeding wheat. He had became bored with it after about an hour, he turns seven in a couple of weeks but thinks he is ready to drive tractors,  when we spotted a couple of Jack Rabbits in the field right before he left. He thought it was so cool to watch them run across the field. It's not uncommon to see wildlife coyotes, pheasants, deer, and hawks are common which I consider a perk of the farming profession.

This reminded me of a story my granddad tells of the first time they tried raising soybeans. I think he said it was back in the 50's and his dad, my great granddad, brought seed back from Iowa. He had seen it growing in Iowa when he had gone to visit family, my family originally settled in northwest Iowa. They planted it to be hayed to feed cattle the next winter. I don't remember him telling me how big it had gotten, but the Jack Rabbits mowed it to the ground and that was the last soybeans they tried raising until the 70's.

This story struck me as odd because it is so rare to see a Jack Rabbits now, but to have enough of them to do damage. I've heard stories from him and other old timers about how horribly over populated Jack Rabbits were then. I had heard stories about farmers having Jack Rabbit roundups, poisoning them and other mass eradication methods.

I seem to see Prairie Chickens in the same fields as I see Jacks. There are only 5 or 6 fields, I think part of the reason why some of these native animals are common in these particular fields is because of how few and far away trees are and how close virgin prairie is to them. Leaving the stubble from the previous crop, particularly wheat stubble, and allowing weeds to get some growth when there isn't a crop growing might mimic some aspects of a prairie.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Why we choose GMO crops

There were many reasons that we choose corn and soybean varieties that contain GMO traits. Many things took place near the time when GMO crops were released. We increased the acres of our land that we used a no till cropping system that relies on crop rotation as much as herbicides to control weeds. The government farm program was greatly changed that allowed us to plant a variety of farm program crops that we needed in our rotation. In the previous program farmers were only allowed to plant crops according to "base acres", historical crop planting, without a lot of paperwork and taking some acres out of the program or buying or renting land that contained the necessary base acres. In my part of Kansas most land contain largely wheat acres, due to wheat followed by wheat for many years as the primary crop rotation. Wheat is great for a rotation, particularly when rotating to corn or grain sorghum in an area like this where water availability can be a challenge, but a poor choice for continuous cropping particularly when combined with a moldboard plow that places all of the residue in what is essentially a dry tomb that only allows for minimal decomposition or burning the residue off and allows for increased soil erosion and poor soil health.

Before the advent of Roundup Ready Soybeans, Roundup is a non selective contact herbicide, the herbicide choices for weed outbreaks were limited. a product that was effective for us in past was Cobra, but it made the soybeans look very sick. We were some of the early adapters of no till in our area so a lot of trial and error in crop rotations took place and herbicide carryover and rotation restrictions are always a concern. After experimenting soybeans were found to be a good fit between grain sorghum and wheat. Rotation restrictions also puts some limits on the preplant residual herbicide choices and sometimes also on the herbicides we can apply over the top during the growing season. This makes RoundUp, active ingredient glyphosate, very attractive since there is no rotation restrictions following application of it. Using Cobra as an example, it has a 12 months rotation restriction to wheat, we typically seed wheat within less than a week following soybean harvest so if we used it we would have to either idle the land for a year or plant another crop the following spring.

We plant corn that contain both herbicide tolerant and insect resistant corn on irrigated fields. Initially we were reluctant of planting both Roundup Ready soybeans and corn in the rotation, because of the chance of developing herbicide resistance in weeds. Insect resistant corn was very appealing because it controled corn borers without the need for organophosphate insecticides, these were a very effective class of insecticides that killed every insect present in the applied area and has been banned a few years ago. With GMO corn we have targeted insect control and according to USDA-ARS researcher Dr. Jonathan Lundgren's has found a tremendous amount of predator insects present in fields of Bt corn. Dr. Lundgren feels that farmers might want to consider saving seed expenses by reducing the amount of Bt corn they plant because of the effectiveness and widespread use. The last few years we've planted corn with stacked traits to obtain the insect resistance we feel we need in the corn varieties that best suit our irrigated fields. With so many different traits available care is taken to note which fields are planted to herbicide resistant corn if follow up weed treatment is needed, all of the necessary refuge for the insect resistant traits are planted first. We plant seed from all three major GMO technology companies, each Bt corn is slightly different, we try to match the seed variety that's best suited to the field.

Our non irrigated corn, in the years we feel that our higher quality land has adequate moisture to raise a corn crop, we plant heebicide resistant corn. Insect resistant traits aren't necessary because of time between possible corn crops, diverse rotation and the physical distance to other corn fields and it reduces seed expense on a crop that might fail. sometimes seed dealers will give us a bag or two of seed that they think is ideal for those fields that contain insect resistant traits.

For the last few years in our soybeans were seeded them in 15 inch rows. This narrower row spacing allow the plants close the rows earlier and shade out late germinating weeds. I'm wanting to try this on corn also, the combine attachment for corn has to match row spacing so this is an added expense for a specialized piece of equipment. This past year in a weedy corn field I noticed the narrow strip where the fertilizer is applied next to the corn row was largely void of weeds. I think with narrower rows combined with how we apply fertilizer might decrease weed pressure and the possibility of a late herbicide application.

Sorghum and sunflowers are such a minor crop and small market, seed companies didn't see enough market for the time and research to develop GMO traits for them. After the export challenges faced by corn and soybeans GMO wheat research was essentially shelved, there are rumors that research will resume in the near future. These crops in addition to soybeans are what we grow on our non irrigated land, most of our acreage isn't irrigated.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

To Cover Crop or not

Authors note: Much of this is my recap of the 2012 No Till on the Plains Winter Conference. I went into the conference wanting to wrap my mind around utilizing cover crops in no till better. I still have many questions, but they might be best answered from experimenting.

Implementing cover crops in no till cropping systems has been a concept introduced to me at the No Till on the Plains winter conference a couple of years ago. Cover crops are plants seeded and grown between cash crops. These plants can be legumes that takes nitrogen from the air for the plant to use, brassica's that are deep rooted that help break compacted layers of soil and trap nitrogen, or grasses that hold soil and take up nutrients.

Gabe Brown, North Dakota farmer and rancher, was the first farmer that really got me interested in this crazy idea. He had found that a complex blend of plant species with varying root depths not only survived, but thrived in through North Dakota droughts. In the initial presentation a few years ago he talked about grazing cow/calf pairs for a month on a cover crop blend, I think he estimated the weight gain on the calves generated $100 or more an acre, that really perked my interest. At his presentation this past winter we told of a corn crop planted in a cover crop blend of cereal rye, vetches, oil seed radishes, turnips and a variety of other plants species. His cost of production was $1.10/bu he made one herbicide application to terminate the rye and set back the vetch enough to not compete with the corn and the cover crop blends provided all the nutrients. The expenses for his cover crops were covered by grazing them with cattle. He showed pictures of a corn crop that was planted into some of the heaviest ground cover of I've ever seen, at around tassel stage the trash was very deteriorated, at harvest the space between the rows were bare with the exception of some vetch that looked about a foot tall, and a couple of weeks later the vetch really started growing.

So Gabe Brown had luck with his cover crops during North Dakota droughts, but how would they deal with a Kansas drought? Gail Fuller, east central Kansas and Ryan Speer, south central Kansas, each gave presentations about their use of cover crops in last summer's drought.

Fuller has had cover crops longer in his rotation and felt early in the season his corn had the potential to be some of his best ever. He showed pictures of it green where his neighbor's corn was burned up from the drought, but relief from the drought came too late for it. After harvesting as forage he planted cover crop blends back to it to protect the soil and keep soil ecology working. The cover crops looked like they had good growth in his photos.

Ryan Speer is transitioning cover crops to his crop rotation and has experimented some the past few years. Speer's dryland corn was horrible, I think he said it yielded in the 15 to 20 bushel per acre range this year, but he noticed his yield monitor jumped up to 60 to 70 bushel range in a spot where there had been a plot of sun hemp between wheat crops three years ago. He stated that evaporation in the fairly short fallow period, late June to early October, is more than the water requirements of many of the cover crops. Speer has also been having rye and radishes flown on to irrigated corn fields late in the irrigation season. These are some very sandy field and he's seen an increase in soil organic matter to help increase both the water holding capacity and fertility of these fields.

So how do I tell how much nutrients are these cover crops are either tying up to be released when they decompose or nitrogen they are "making" in the case of legumes? Ray Ward of Ward Lab, recommends farmers either estimate how many tons of hay the cover crop may make and determine protein value of the various plants or send a vegetative sample from one square yard for a cover crop analysis. Many cover crop advocates emphasizing some very diverse mixes so I feel sending a sample would be more helpful.

How do cover crops effect soil biology? Dr. Jill Clapperton soil biologist and president of Rhizoterra Inc explained that poor soil biology produced poor crops in terms of both crop yields and nutrient content. She went on to tell us that most soil organisms are fed by the soil organic matter and when cover crops are used there are more actively growing roots throughout the entire growing season to keep producing soil organic matter. She also stated that the more diverse mix of plants that are growing on top of the soil the more diversity in soil organisms, since a monocropping system is used for cash crops this leaves cover crops to be a major source of plant diversity. Earth worms are one of the biggest and easiest to recognize soil organisms and they absolutely dislike soils that have had mechanical tillage performed. Mechanical tillage disrupts the soil organisms that earth worms live on.

Fuller commented on having part of a field that was poor even though soil tests revealed that fertility was the same as the rest of the field. A mycorrhizea test revealed that it was severely out of balance there. Clapperton mentioned that Ward Lab and a few others are capable of testing for it now. Determining which cover crops helps correct mycorrhizea problems is a challenge.

I sat in a presentation of Dr. Jonathan Lundgren an entomologist with USDA-ARS, stationed at North Central Agriculture Research Laboratory, Brookings, South Dakota. He does extensive research and studying of predator insects. He stressed that reducing soil disturbance and careful scouting and using insecticides only when thresholds are met are a help preserve insect predators. He felt cover crop blends are helpful in recruiting more predators insects to fields to reduce need for insecticides.

I ran into a neighbor, Craig Ballou, he had a stop on a sunflower crop tour last summer at a double crop sunflower field without commercial nitrogen fertilizer. The field had been in a sun hemp cover crop between two wheat crops. It's a common practice of no till farmers in my area to raise two continuous crops of wheat. From past soil tests on double crop sunflowers in this rotation the nitrogen left was the same as what he had applied so he decided to not apply it. With our winter wheat growing season the soil doesn't warm soon enough for the residual nitrogen from a legume to be available for the wheat other than a possible protein boost.
Sunflower Showcase 3
Here are Craig Ballou's double crop sunflowers on August 30th. No nitrogen fertilizer was applied and Craig said they did very good, I could tell he was proud of them when I asked him about them.

I feel transitioning to cover crops is the next step in our no till rotation. I feel it will be a fairly slow transition as we learn what mix of plants and how to seed them in a timely manner. We will need to start on land we own, partially to insure we receive the long term benefits of it and to also prove to landlords that this crazy idea is viable.