When the weather is cooperating, nothing is more cost-efficient than no-till rice and soybeans for Weiner, Ark., farmer Scott Matthews. But when it rains every week during harvest for a few years in a row, the system can literally get stuck in a rut.
Matthews is the operator of Matthews Farm Partnership and farms 1,400 acres of rice and soybeans in a one-in, one-out rotation. He started no-tilling his rice in 1984, and soybeans, after the second year of Roundup Ready technology.
Matthews says his later start in farming was a factor in adopting no-till. “Coming from the fertilizer/chemical side, I couldn’t figure out why we were making some steps that didn’t seem necessary other than that was the way we always did it. I would see these huge flat beautiful fields that looked like a desktop. I asked my dad (Joe Matthews) why we would take a field and make it rougher to plant. It didn’t make any sense. I saw no-till as a way to save time and be more cost-efficient.”
He talked his father into a no-till system, despite the fact that a lot of technology for the system was not yet available. “In 1984 there was no such thing as a no-till drill. So we took a conventional drill and made a no till drill. We always try to plant into soft ground. Just as soon as the ground would hold the tractor up, we went in and started planting rice.”
This pushed rice planting up to early April and then late March, which were not typical planting dates at that time.
For Matthews, making no-till work requires thinking two to three steps ahead and never putting off until tomorrow what can be done today.
After soybeans are cut in the fall, Matthews will burn soybean stubble. “If the weather conditions are right, it will burn just like gunpowder across the field. It gives you a beautiful seedbed.”
P and K applications go out at that time too. “I know it's kind of cost-prohibitive for some people to put it out in the fall. But a lot of companies have programs that will let you go to March 15 if you pay 25 percent down.”
About a week after soybean stubble is burned, Matthews scouts for winter vegetation. “A lot of people don’t realize it, but the winter grass has already started growing by the time the leaves fall off the beans. I’m very aggressive with burndown. If my fields are getting green in November, they will get sprayed.”
Matthews applies Roundup for that burndown, but will use Valor “if the conditions are right. I’ve had very good luck with Roundup that time of year. If you get it out and on, you’re not worried about how long it’s going to take to kill.” At that time, Matthews will put in any ditching the field may require.
In the spring, he’ll take another look at weeds and when temperatures are right, he’ll apply Roundup PowerMax.
His optimum planting window for rice is March 26 through April 5. He runs a John Deere 1590 John Deere no-till drill, equipped with Starfire GPS to allow around-the- clock planting. He plants both hybrid and conventional rice.
After planting, Matthews will apply Command and another shot of Roundup, build the levees and put in spills. “We try to do that in a real timely manner.”
A pre-flood nitrogen application of 250 pounds to 260 pounds goes out by airplane. Agrotain goes on just about every acre, according to Matthews. “Some of my fields are so big that it may take me 7 to 10 days to flood them. Agrotain does a very good job.”
At mid-season, he’ll put a reduced amount of nitrogen on hybrids, 50 pounds to 60 pounds, and 100 pounds to 125 pounds on conventional rice.
Stink bug management
Matthews is very aggressive on stink bug management, knowing that the insects can have a huge impact on quality. Matthews may apply a fungicide for smut on rice, but not on hybrids.
When rice heads start to turn over, “we’ll look at the DD-50s and determine a draining date. “We will rerun our PTO ditches with a high crop tractor, pull our spills and get ready for harvest,” which begins when rice is under 21 percent moisture.
As rice fields are draining, Matthews is already thinking about planting soybeans into rice stubble the following spring. (While he burns soybeans stubble, he prefers to let rice stubble stand).
“When we cut rice, we like to get the levees torn down within 48 hours. We want to be proactive in getting our fields ready to no-till. We turned the dike plow around backwards, run it down and back, and then we run a 9 ½-foot disk, which fits inside the levee.
“Mother Nature will take care of the rest. If in the spring I’m not happy with it, I can take a box scraper and bust the tops of them little bit.”
Rice straw is left as it is, Matthews notes. “We don’t burn it, we don’t flood it and we don’t roll it. We need that rice stubble so that we’ll have a mat of protection for the soybeans, and it will hold moisture. It’s like mulching a garden.”
Holding duck water on those fields can complicate matters, Matthews noted. “If you’re holding duck water you still have your spills and your levees out there. It’s going to be an issue. We want the ground dry at harvest. That’s our best chance at no till.”
Benefits from no-till included an increase in soybean yields of 8 bushels to 10 bushels an acre. There has also been an increase in efficiency in the rotation. “You’re going from combine to drill to combine with less fuel costs and less tillage cost.”
This year, Matthews had one of his best yields ever in rice, about 202 bushels across the farm. He hauls all his rice to Riceland Foods in Weiner, Ark.
Weather over the last few years has had a negative impact on both rice quality and his no-till program. “Our quality usually starts out good, then we catch a shower, and the rice gets wet and has to dry out again. My milling starts out outstanding, but every time it rains, it gets a little worse. When it rains eight or nine weeks during harvest, I don’t know that any variety will do well.”
Rains at harvest have also put Matthews’s no-till program on hold after a great 10-year run of almost perfect no-till weather. “We got really relaxed thinking it can happen like that all the time, but it didn’t. I’m a no-till rice and soybean producer, but had to buy new disk last fall, the first one I’ve had to buy in 17 years. All because of the weather.
“Last year it cost about 5,000 gallons to 6,000 gallons of diesel to put the crop in. A lot of times in no till, with we can put it in for a whole lot less than 1,500 gallons.”
All Matthews can do is prepare and hope for the best. “We’ll go back to our old conventional tillage and get the ruts out. It will take several years to get it back it back to the way we had it when we were no-tilling.”
Resistant weeds such as horseweed and Palmer amaranth could also be a challenge to Matthews’s no-till program. They haven’t shown up in force yet, “so I don’t know if I have an issue yet or not. But I’m going to have to do things on a small scale to make sure that I don’t have some other issues that have cropped up.”
But that’s the nature of farming, Matthews says. “Farming changes so much every three or four years. Farmers used to never think too far ahead. But no-till makes you think. I can plan three or four years in advance of what I’m going to do. I got really lucky there with great weather for a long time.”
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