For growers employing conservation-till/no-till systems, an exceptionally wet 2009 means much more field-prep work will be required going into 2010. Scott Matthews is undeterred, though — he’s a long-term user and believer in the systems.
Matthews farms in Arkansas’ Poinsett County, north of Weiner and south of Waldenburg, on a 50/50 rotation with rice and soybeans.
“How many people got the highest rainfall in 2009 they’ve ever had?” Matthews asked those attending the Jan. 12 Conservation Systems Cotton and Rice Conference in Tunica, Miss. Most hands in the room went up. “I was totally washed out. I have lots of decisions to make.
“Until the last couple of days it didn’t dawn on me — since I’ve been in a minimum-till system for so long — that I hadn’t pulled a disk in a long time. Well, after 2009, I’ll have to disk every acre of my ground. I know that hasn’t happened in 15 years and it may have been 20. That is a major headache.”
Matthews has been involved in no-tilling since 1983 when he worked in the chemical/fertilizer business. Even while not farming “I became familiar with it and when we began farming in 1990, I wanted to implement those practices.”
At first, it was hard to figure out, he admits. “I wanted to be safe — ‘I don’t want to jump out on a limb and a make big decision and find it’s all bad.’ So, in the beginning of our no-till experiment, I leaned towards planting later — much later than we do now. And that would work once but wouldn’t work in a system.”
Matthews — who said, to laughs, “Everything I tell you today is a suggestion and not a recommendation. I am not a doctor” — changed up and began planting earlier. Doing so, he found, provides a longer window not only in the spring but also in the fall.
“The one thing I needed to do right off the bat was plant early varieties. But I also knew I needed to harvest early. I was looking for only one extra day. With the combines we have now, I knew if I could harvest a day earlier that was a big deal.”
Looking for that extra day, Matthews began studying Arkansas DD50 charts and found the recommended drain date: Aug. 9.
“The first thing I figured was a comfort zone was built in. Immediately, that took me out of watering my rice during the hottest month. That saves fuel, pump maintenance, labor. And if my silt loam soils ever dry down, they can take a rain and still harvest without trashing the field too bad.
“The way we drain across my whole farm — rice and soybeans — is all PTO ditch. I’m a firm believer in them and use them over and over. Lots of times I won’t re-run them.
“But we take a High Crop 6420 and cut through the main ditches when we drain. The reason is so the field has every opportunity to get as dry as possible before a combine rolls in.”
At harvest — “and this is important” — Matthews is adamant about beginning his no-till program as soon as the combine is in the field. The goal is for every field to be ready to no-till within 48 hours after it is cut.
That’s overkill at some level, he admits. “But it also puts you in a good spot. It will be seven months before you have to plant the field in soybeans.
“The only thing I do to the field is come in with a dike cutter, make a down-and-back and leave just a hair of a crown. That’s right behind the combine.”
Matthews then sends in a 9.5-foot disk. The straw is very green and you can’t do much with it — “and I don’t want to do much with it. I run the disk to take that little bit of crown the cutter leaves. Mother Nature can smooth the clods out. But you want to work inside that dirt. Get outside it and you’ll make a mess, it’ll ball up and won’t work right.”
He also doesn’t typically re-run PTO ditches. However, “if I feel I’ve blocked some drains I’ll slip back in and do it. Like I said: the goal is to have every field ready to plant 48 hours after it’s cut.”
Matthews is on a two-year program, always trying to stay early. He doesn’t burn fields, doesn’t roll them and doesn’t hold duck water.
“If you’re serious about fertilizing your beans, when feasible, it’s a good idea to put out your P and K in the fall. If you wait until spring, you’ll get more cleat marks. The ground is firmer in the fall and if you’re going to no-till/con-till long-term, you want the least number of tracks.”
As for weeds, “I’m sure you’re familiar with marestail. The strange thing about marestail this year was it didn’t show up. I called Rick Thompson, my county Extension agent, and said, ‘I don’t see any marestail.’ He said, ‘It’s too wet and too cold!’ I didn’t have a stalk of marestail come up in my fields this year. Some showed up on the sides and corners but it was strange.”
A photo of thick rice stubble flashed up on the screen. “This is how I want to plant my soybeans: in standing stubble. The reason for that is I want it to catch the air so it’ll dry down quicker. If you roll it, the bottom side is tough. That’s okay if you catch the right weather — the drill makes it look like a bad haircut. I’d rather take my chances in standing stubble, though.”
Matthews never burn his rice stubble but burns bean stubble, when possible. The old rice stubble will “burn off very slick.”
For beans, Matthews plants more towards seed size and tries to stay around 180,000 seeds per acre. He also plants shallow.
“One of the mistakes I used to make, even after starting with no-till, was staying with mid-Group 5 varieties. That pushed the crop into October. We do a lot of testing on my farm and found 4.7/4.8/4.9 beans win the yield most every year. So, now, I stick to that group range and that kicks me up eight to 10 days in harvest. I start around Sept. 20 to Sept. 25 instead of Oct. 3. That’s a lot of time.”
At one point, Matthews increased his soybean yields eight consecutive years. “I credit the system we’ve adopted for doing it.”
Matthews still flood irrigates. “I’m hard-headed and don’t want to build beds on my rice ground — the soil is shallow. So, we still flood irrigate.
“I’m still not entirely happy with seed spacing and wish it would get better. We may have to switch planters.”
Another picture flashed on the screen, this one a tractor. “This is my little planting tractor, a 7820 with low-cleat lugs and a hands-free GPS. Seven or eight years ago, I learned at this conference that all the cotton growers had this stuff. No one in my area did. I talked to them and found out they were taking one tractor and running it all day — three guys on it eight hours each.
“I thought, ‘Man, that’s neat!’ That’s because in no-till you always have trouble seeing, especially after dark. Using the (hands-free) system eliminates that. Now, we plant almost as much at midnight as at noon. When we get started, we keep going because you can never tell when the weather will turn.”
With GPS it doesn’t matter who is behind the tractor’s wheel. Previously, “only one guy could keep the planter straight. Actually, with the lighting systems now available, I’d almost rather plant at night because you can see the openers on the drill and the seed falling through.”
It also saves fuel. When John Deere came out with the hands-free system the company claimed it saves 17 percent on fuel. Matthews “could hardly believe that” and so checked. “It was close — about 15 percent.
“Well, if it saves fuel by being so consistent then it must be saving seed, as well. That’s got to be a consideration with soybeans at $50 per bag.”
And agriculture pilots like it. “They say, ‘We like those straight rows,’” said Matthews. “Well, any time you can help your ag pilots, do it — especially if you’re a rice farmer.”