In early July, Tim Smith and Carl Beavers drove to Jacky Reaper's Albion, Ark., farm for a chat. Fittingly, when the three con-till farmers met to talk shop, it wasn't around a table but on a turn row.
Smith, who farms outside Holly Grove, Ark., is a long-time con-till farmer who values cover crops. Beavers — a former building contractor — farms near Griffithville, Ark., and is a quick adopter of innovative farming techniques. Reaper, handcuffed with a scarcity of water, farms a diverse operation largely irrigated with a chain of reservoirs.
Under a cloudless sky, alongside soybeans and corn, the cool morning quickly heated up. But the men — caught up in a discussion of cover crops, equipment, input costs, farming practices and possibilities — hardly noticed. Delta Farm Press listened in. Among their comments:
Smith: “I'm running a coulter ahead of a Hawkins ripper shank. I can subsoil up to a foot deep with that.
“Behind that, I have a double-disk on a spring. If you hit a chunk or rock, it used to knock bearings out. With the spring, it rides up and does a pretty job of throwing dirt and reshaping the bed.
“Then, on the back, on some ground I was re-bedding, I ran a double hub coulter to work the row up. That way, I can drop fertilizer into the row if I want.
“Ahead of the planter, we ran the roller through half knee-high wheat that was planted for cover. It watered well and the corn is very pretty, planted in that loose dirt…
“I've got an Eddins roller that we've re-manufactured to meet our needs. It would be hard to do what we're trying on 40-foot rollers because of the weight. When you start throwing eight-row coulters on the back, it would get shaky.”
Reaper: “We want to go more to no-till because the fuel price is so high. It's terrible.”
Smith: “We planted 1,000 acres of corn, 1,200 acres of soybeans, and 200 acres of milo, and we did some field work all with 1,400 gallons of diesel. The system will save money.”
Beavers: “I haven't worked ground in 10 or 11 years. I inherited ruts on some land. I figured I'd have to disk twice and float twice. When I experimented with the field cultivator, I thought, ‘I believe this thing will fill these ruts.’
“So, with the cultivator, I went across just the rutted spots. Right behind, we were floating within two hours.
“I rigged up another deal that, at first, looked pretty stupid. I came up with a blade and made a ‘V’ deal — so I could bed up a little levee — and everywhere I had a rut, I took my little Massey and straddled it. You wouldn't believe how good a job my worker did pulling that dirt back into the rut. And if he grabbed too much material, he'd throw up just a little bit of a furrow. But it would settle back into the rut.
“I no-tilled some spots like that crossways. We went really slowly so when it hit that small indentation, it would sock the seed into the ground. We got a nice stand doing that.” Smith: “That's why we made the changes to our roller. Last fall, as wet as it was, we had floatation tires on the combine. But it still left a print and got my beds out of shape.
“But I could run the roller back through the field and it reshaped the shoulders neatly.”
Reaper: “(On a nearby field) we bedded and planted Group 3s. We did nothing to it in the fall. It's precision-leveled, but it has two slopes to it — falling two directions. So we levee-watered it. Of course, when we knocked the levees down, it stopped the furrows up.
“I've got this old bedder with wings on the chisel plow shanks. I widened the wings out a little and took it through the field. It cleaned the middles and threw dirt on top.
“Then we took our Brandt roller/bedder and went back across it to smooth the ground. With two passes across the field, it was planted…
“To water this 80 acres, I can gravity flow out of one of our reservoirs. There's no need to pump the water on, just open a 10-inch alfalfa valve. Using a roll and a half of polypipe, I can water over half of it by gravity in one day.
“But I can't get my beds wet, saturated across. It falls too fast. It hasn't hurt the crop, though. The roots are getting to the moisture in the furrow.”
Smith: “That's where cover crops are really helping us. Where we planted beans planted into rye residue, we still had moisture three weeks later. Where I had no cover crop in a field we worked up, in eight days we had to be back watering.”
Reaper: “Do you drill cover crops in?”
Smith: “Last year, I drilled a bunch right behind a corn combine. On another field I tried sowing with an airplane into a corn field. We shelled the corn and just let the corn trash cover it up. Man, we got a good stand.
“(Cereal) rye is hardy. You can throw it on concrete, get a rain and it'll come up. It'll let you make mistakes other cover crops won't allow…
“I'm going to use some triticale — a rye and wheat cross — as a cover this year. It needs more seed-to-soil contact than rye does. It's been suggested I drill it or sow it and cover it with a bedder.
“By using it, you'll get some of the disease benefits of wheat. At the same time, you're getting a large straw diameter… and (it) doesn't degrade as quickly as wheat. It lasts like rye does.
“When we begin harvesting beans, rye is usually still in it…It goes through the combine like paper. It works all the way to harvest as far as giving shade and helping control grass and broadleaf weeds. By using cover crops, I don't have nearly the pressure from teaweed and morningglory…
“I call it a natural ripper. Instead of using a mechanical means, the roots work the soil. When you kill that cover, the bean and corn roots follow the same channels.
“We don't have nearly the soil compaction we once had. Even when I was running my DMI every couple of years, we experienced a lot of compaction. Since using cover crops, though, we don't have nearly the trouble we once did.
“And water doesn't stand in it, either. Even when we get good rains, the soil just soaks it up. Wherever we don't have a cover crop, the middles are full of water.
“Sometimes folks will say, ‘Well, I tried no-till 15 years ago and it didn't work.’ So much has happened since then, though. We've had changes in equipment and varieties.”
Reaper: “Tim, you combine your corn and leave the stalks lying out there all winter? Do you have any trouble drilling beans into that residue?”
Smith: “The only time we have trouble — and it's hardly worth mentioning — is when we leave the corn stalks too short. We need to leave the stalks (tall enough to keep) from damaging the tires on our drill…
Beavers: “I picked up a 7340 vacuum with no-till coulters. I ran across it for $4,700 at a sale and thought it was a steal… We planted into corn stalks and it did very well.”
Smith: “When I have row-cleaners and coulters at the front, I haven't had any trouble planting into corn. And I'm looking at 42 pounds of seed compared to 60. Yield-wise, there seems to be no difference.
“One thing that's kind of interesting is soybean seed size was bigger than in years past. Where I had a drill set to plant 60 pounds, I ended up with 45 this year. That made me nervous. But it came up and canopied nicely.”
Reaper: “I don't think we're going to see any reduction in fuel costs. Heck, it may be even higher. So we've got to (work con-till with cover crops) as much as possible.
“Some of our low ground catches creek overflow in the spring. Sometimes it floods once, sometimes six times. I think a cover crop will work well because we lose a lot of soil with those floods.”
Smith: “If you're looking for a cover here, I think rye is the ticket. Rye can handle poorly drained soils much better than wheat can. Places where I couldn't get a stand of wheat — draws and holes — rye will pop up.
“You can plant it earlier too. I've been planting rye in August. It has great winterhardiness. It grows out of dormancy at around 37 degrees, I think. Wheat won't break dormancy until 42 degrees.
“And it will take off. We planted in some rye with our 8300 tractor and it was up at eye level in the cab — over 6 feet tall and headed out…”
Beavers: “How much are you paying for it?”
Smith: “About $7.50 per acre.”
Beavers: “That's a watering. To me, that's just a watering.
“I've no-tilled beans into my rice field. I burned some stubble and that was a mistake. Where the residue was, the beans did a lot better. In April, I said, ‘I've got to burn off my rice fields and drill.’ I burned off two-thirds of one and you can see the difference.
“And where I knocked down levees, I had no stand. Now, the beans are coming up on the levees. Over six weeks after planting, I've got treated seed coming up on the levees.”
Smith: “I burned my rye down three weeks after planting the beans. The only reason I burned it down was because I felt it was sucking too much moisture out of the ground.
“I haven't had a lot of trouble out of cutworms on the rye. When I sowed crimson clover three years ago, it was scary, though. I had corn planted and the clover was blooming. I pulled back the dead clover — where I'd used Roundup and Clarity — and I was finding eight or nine cutworms per square foot. They love clover.”
Beavers: “Did you notice that when the rye was dying it pulled a bunch of moisture out of the ground? I've noticed that when I have a late burndown, especially on rice. It seems in that situation, my grass dying seems to accelerate the moisture being pulled from the ground.”
Smith: “Well, it has an incredible root system on it. It's a great scavenger. It will bring potash 3 feet deep to the surface.
“Beans love being planted into rye. Corn has a little trouble if it's a wet year. Even though I've had starter on my corn, if it's wet and planted in rye, it comes up a little puny and yellow.”
Beavers: “Because it doesn't like wet feet?”
Smith: “That and nitrogen tie-up. But after a couple of weeks, the corn grows out of that and does fine. This year, as dry as it is, that wasn't a problem…
“Yetter has come out with a new trash wheel. I couldn't get them this year, but I saw them at a machinery show. They have a laser cut on it called a ‘shark tooth.’ Those don't do as much soil disturbing as the spike trash wheels do. I think that will be a great tool in the future.”
Beavers: “What happens if you have rye come up volunteer?”
Smith: “If any shatters out and comes up, it's very easy to kill with Roundup. It isn't like the rye we have in our ditches. All it takes is a sniff of Roundup on the cereal rye. They say the triticale is the same way.”
Beavers: “Can you combine (cereal rye) yourself and re-use it?”
Smith: “Don't try it, man. We were going to save 40 acres last year… When you run it through the combine, it's full of trash. I carried it to the seed cleaner and even after it came out, it was too trashy. We couldn't drill it with just one cleaning. It takes two cleanings. It's just too much trouble.
“I understand the triticale is easier to salvage and replant. With triticale, I looked for one that didn't get really tall. Some of the triticales are bred to head in April. It'll be interesting to work with.
“I'm not going all triticale, we're still doing a bunch of rye — although we're going with a shorter variety. We're dropping wheat and replacing it with triticale.”