Tony Kodesh and his friend Gerald Boyer recall a conversation they had 12 years ago. They remember the talk taking place in the wee hours of the morning, during a short break in a long day's fieldwork.
“I am tired of working land,” Kodesh recalls saying.
That fall he bought his first no-till drill to put in a wheat crop. He added a few more reduced-tillage implements and for more than ten years has been 100 percent no-till. He's raising wheat, corn and soybeans in Noble County, Okla., one whole county and a part of another one south of the Kansas state line.
No-till is not the only change he's made in the past decade to improve efficiency. He's incorporating technology, including global positioning system units, better varieties and hybrids, along with a sound rotation program, to squeeze as much production as he can out of every resource he invests in his crops.
Asked if 2008 was not a good year to be no-till, considering the high price of diesel, Kodesh said: “Every year is a good year for no-till.”
To prove his point, he pulled his multi-tool from his pocket and dug behind the corn planter. “The ground looks dry on top,” he said. But he pulled up a clod of dirt from about two inches deep, crushed the moist soil in his hand and remarked that corn seed would have ample moisture to germinate. He pointed to depressions in another clod. “Worm holes,” he said. “They make the soil act like a sponge.”
His no-till soils have been soaking up and retaining moisture for ten years now and he says the practice makes sense when both prices and inputs soar or when the reverse is true. “When crop prices were lower so were input costs. It's all relative, but no-till improves the soil.”
It also improved yields on his clay soils. One cornfield he's been farming for just a few years has already improved to about 90 bushels per acre. He said no-till makes a big difference in drought years. Take 2006, for instance. “That was about as dry year as I ever saw,” he said. “We started off with a full soil profile, but we didn't get much rain after that.”
Most of the corn in the area was ruined. “A lot of farmers in the area lost their corn crop,” Kodesh said. “But ours hung on. Variety selection and no-till made a difference.”
He said yields averaged only about 40 bushels per acre that year, not up to usual standards, but in a year when most fields had withered away, 40 bushels was decent.
He plants wheat behind corn in the fall and typically doublecrops soybeans behind the wheat and comes back with corn the following spring. He may graze some wheat and plant soybeans in the residue.
He likes the rotation and devotes about one-third of his planted acreage each year to each of the three crops.
“I may plant a little more corn than usual this year. We didn't get as much wheat planted as we usually do.”
He said wheat was once his main crop but corn and soybeans have come on the past few years. “Corn and beans work well for us.”
Most of his soybeans follow wheat harvest but he'll plant a few full-season beans this spring, depending on how much corn acreage he could plant before the insurance deadline. “It's been a wet spring, so in late May we switch to soybeans.”
That rotation has paid off well for Kodesh. He gets good residue from each of the crops to make no-till effective and to put organic matter back into the soil. The system also makes weed control a bit easier. “We have different control options in each crop.”
Corn and soybean varieties are all Roundup Ready, but he doesn't rely solely on Roundup for weed control. “I use Roundup mostly as a backup in corn,” he said. “I always apply a pre-emergence herbicide. I have seen no resistant weeds, but I want to keep Roundup as an effective tool. Glyphosate is a wonderful product and I want to make sure it's around for a long time. Crop rotation helps and so does the pre-emergence herbicide. I get the escapes with Roundup.”
He's used Degree Extra for the last few years. “It's done a great job and I save one or two Roundup applications because of it.”
He relies on Roundup in soybeans. “I typically use just Roundup, but I plant late enough to avoid early weed problems.”
He sprays Roundup and 2, 4-D after wheat harvest and usually manages to keep soybeans clean with just one in-season Roundup application.
He said the combination of products and rotation has allowed him to eliminate a potentially bad weed problem. “We don't have field bindweed anymore,” he said. He walked into a wheat field that looked about as weed-free as a well-tended golf green. “This field used to be covered in field bindweed,” he said.
Kodesh said global positioning system technology is also improving efficiency. “We traded a sprayer for one with an automatic boom shutoff,” he said. “Now we're using about 6 percent less chemical. This is one change I really like.”
Tony' son Scott said GPS also helps with controlled traffic patterns in no-till production.
“We're using auto-steer, auto-shutoff and mapping systems,” Kodesh said. “It's all very efficient.”
He said a glyphosate shortage this spring, and higher prices, make the auto-shutoff even more valuable. “I'm also using a little more pre-emergence herbicide this year.”
He says cutting back on inputs, for the most part, is false economy. “We can't skimp on weed control or fertility,” he said. But he is adjusting how he applies fertilizer to corn and maybe saving a little money in the process.
“I applied some fertilizer pre-plant and put down the rest in-season,” he said. “That may allow me to use a little less without sacrificing yield. The fertilizer I apply will be fully used and not leached out before the plant needs it. I may reduce nitrogen rate by 15 percent by applying part during the growing season instead of putting it all down before planting.”
He also tweaked plant populations a bit this year to stretch seed dollars. “I'm also looking at different day-length hybrids.”
He said Bt corn decreases in-season pest control costs and is one reason he maintains high quality with no aflatoxin.
He's had corn research plots on his farm since 2002 to help identify the best hybrids for the area. “We plant experimental varieties with Monsanto.” Part of the effort is designed to find drought tolerance and hybrids with lower nitrogen demand. “We expect to see drought tolerant corn in three years and nitrogen efficient hybrids in five years. Nitrogen efficient hybrids will produce the same yield with 40 percent less nitrogen.” That reduction will mean significant savings with high fertilizer prices.
He's not skimping on wheat management this year either. “I plant 90 percent of my wheat acreage for certified seed,” he said. That means a commitment to exceptional weed control and disease management.
“I always spray fungicides to control disease. I've used Tilt since it came out in the 1980s. It pays in this area because we typically have high humidity and wet conditions in the spring. Fungal diseases can be bad.”
Powdery mildew and leaf rust are the top targets. “I've never seen a year when a Tilt application didn't pay for itself. Sometimes it provides a significant advantage. This year, with the current price of wheat, it takes fewer bushels to pay. But it is costing more to apply this year.”
He said a 2-bushel yield advantage will pay for a fungicide application. “A 20-year average advantage with a fungicide is 7 to 8 bushels per acre. Some years we get a 15-bushel increase; some years we get a lot less.”
But a fungicide application is always a good tool, he said.
He said the area has some Hessian fly infestations. “They were heavy in 2006. We have a new variety from Oklahoma State University, Duster, that's resistant to Hessian fly. It looks good and should do well in this area.”
Kodesh is growing Duster for seed this year.
He sells about 50,000 bushels of wheat seed he grows each year and also is a seed rep for Monsanto corn and soybeans. He sells enough corn and soybean seed for about 20,000 acres each every year.
He uses a bulk system to manage soybean seed. “That's easier than having to use bags,” he said. “I also use seed tenders for my customers to improve efficiency, which helps increase market share.”
Kodesh may still work a lot of long hours, pushing to beat planting deadlines and to get fungicides or herbicides out on time. But he's taken steps over the past decade to eliminate some of the aggravation and some of the cost inherent in conventional tillage systems.
Adopting technology, such as GPS and better varieties and relying on old stand-bys such as crop rotation, push crop management efficiency even further. And he likely gets a little less tired from working land.