Under a sun that seems to strengthen daily, Mark Ahrent, already standing on the field's crown — 80 acres of tall wheat plants spill gently away from him — is waiting for Roger Gipson and Trey Reaper to reach him. Pleased with the sweep of green that will soon turn gold, Ahrent casually picks grain heads and scouts stalks.
“It's hot, man — hottest day yet,” says Gipson, pausing briefly to wipe sweat off his cheek. “It may be 80 degrees, but the humidity is way over that.”
Don't misunderstand: Gipson, Clay County, Ark., Extension agent, isn't complaining. “The humidity is good. This crop will take off even more than it has already.”
Wheat after rice
The crop Gipson wants goosed is Ahrent's bedded wheat field planted after rice.
“This is the first year I've worked with this particular practice,” says Gipson. “We've got quite a bit of wheat in this state planted behind rice. One of the problems with that is the soils typically are going to be wetter — especially after a rice crop. So when you want to plant wheat, you can run into problems.”
While Gipson and Reaper, Arkansas Extension wheat and soybean research verification coordinator, agreed to work with Ahrent on the field, the setup was Ahrent's idea.
“I've always utilized drain furrows. But Mark wanted to try this and no-till soybeans behind it,” says Gipson. “What intrigued me was this bedded system is actually better than installing drain furrows. The reason is that there's essentially a drain furrow every 60 inches. This has proven to be a good way to go.”
Ahrent — who farms in a Corning, Ark., partnership with his father, Martin, and brother, Michael — claims no new discoveries with the system. “I was just trying to bring in what some others were doing and make it work here,” he says.
“Yeah, you see this more on the Grand Prairie where it basically started,” says Reaper. “But this is as good-looking a field of this system as I've seen.”
When planted in rice, the verification field yields about 130-bushel to 135-bushel dry rice. A half-mile down the road, Ahrent has prime rice ground that gives averages over 170 bushels. His average yield across the farm is 160 bushels.
“The heavier bottom soils we have are going to be one year in and one year out with rice. The ground where we can fudge and get a little wheat on is sandier — like this field.”
Last fall, when they got ready to plant the field, the Ahrents took every other gang off an old John Deere 12-row RN cultivator on 30-inch rows. First, they tried using an irrigation sweep on it to get the desired bedding effect.
“It was like working a field with a garden tractor when you really needed a four-wheel drive tractor,” says Ahrent. “We just couldn't get done what we needed.”
Ahrent had been talking to the local John Deere dealer who had equipment “with shovels out front and round drums that pack the soil back down — making a good, firm seedbed. I told him what I needed to do, and he recommended I try a used one. I really appreciated that and took him up on it.”
Presto. Once Ahrent had made a round or two with the piece of equipment, he never looked back.
“We made an adjustment or two, but we knew almost immediately that the machine was delivering what we wanted. So I drilled the seed and ran the bedder/groover behind the drill. It worked fine. But next year, I'll probably reverse the two — bedder in front and drill behind.”
Luckily, Ahrent had the right kind of weather to get the wheat up. But if he ever runs into a period where the wheat was drilled and “we're shy of enough moisture to get the wheat up and then add dry dirt on top, that might be too much. I'd worry about that.”
The farm didn't miss all the hurricane-related weather last fall, but had a bigger planting window than producers further south.
“We cut the rice in late August, early September. We then went over it with a roller and left it there for a couple of weeks. Fortunately, the rains held off and it dried down. We got an exceptionally clean burn.”
Ahrent was able to disk it once and then left it alone for several weeks. Once a fresh rain hit it, he disked it again, ran a land plane, field-cultivated and then took the grain drill in.
“We planted on Oct. 7; it was a good thing we planted when we did. Right after that it began to rain. We were lucky to be able to plant a bit more around Oct. 20. After that, the skies really opened up.”
The field is planted in Pioneer 2684 and Pat — the new University of Arkansas public release. Pat (a medium-late variety) looks “really good,” says Reaper. It is a bit behind the 2684 in maturity.
Corning, located in northeast Arkansas, is only a few miles from the Missouri border.
“Up here, the best case with wheat behind rice is to plant the first week of October. After you've had a rice crop the soils are typically going to be wetter. Even though you've burnt it off, there are still root mass and residue that hold moisture. So it's essential to get the wheat planted into dry soils, get it up and have a tiller or two established before the weather starts deteriorating,” says Gipson.
Ahrent wants to no-till beans behind this wheat.
“Before, we used an old cultivator and roller system to plant Roundup Ready soybeans. We got a decent bed, but nothing as uniform and slick as this was. I was looking at it and thought, ‘Man, this is what we need to do with our wheat. We can have our drainage furrows in there and won't have to run all the crisscross ditches. And when we get through combining, just strike a match. The furrows are already in the field, ready to hold plastic tubing.’ It just clicked. We haven't gotten to the point where we'll burn stubble and plant the beans back, but that's next.”
For this bedded wheat crop, Ahrent put out a preplant blend of 40-60-80. He returned on Jan. 28 — “the ground wasn't frozen solid, but it was very firm” — with a floater truck and applied 100 pounds of urea, 50 pounds of ammonium sulfate and 50 pounds of DAP.
“Shortly after that application, this wheat started looking so much better than other wheat we have,” says Ahrent. “It perked up and took off growing. Then on March 7, we flew 120 pounds of urea on this field. I think our first application is what really made this wheat crop.”
“Even though it was cold in February and it seemed a little early to be applying fertilizer, it still worked,” he says. “When it got a little warmer, the plants had fertilizer available. It takes time for fertilizer to break down into a form that the plants can pick up. If wheat is in tough conditions, I think it's very important to get the fertilizer out early. When you're behind rice, you've got to make sure you give the wheat every break and advantage you can. You're behind the eight-ball when you kick the crop off.”
Ahrent, watching the bottom line, is a fan of public varieties.
“One reason I was happy to have Pat, company seed gets expensive at a high seeding rate. I had about $25 per acre in wheat seed alone,” he says.
“If we can bump the yield on this field from 55 bushels to 65 bushels, the wheat starts looking a lot more attractive — even with the extra inputs and management. If the $3.15 to $3.25 wheat price holds, we'll have some cash flow in June when (rice urea is going out and) there's a hefty fertilizer bill hitting our mail box.”