Grain, no-till production improves flexibility, opportunity for Oklahoma farm

Brandon Webb is excited about growing some grain.

He’s been interested in adding corn and grain sorghum to a rotation plan with wheat for several years, but until recent price improvements couldn’t justify taking land out of a wheat/cattle, grain and grazing program.

He’s thinking about adding soybeans to the mix at some point and he’ll use no-till planting techniques for the cropping mix. He’s also interested in the possibility of selling carbon credits that may be available because of his switch to conservation tillage.

“I’m interested in no-till,” Webb said, “especially to help control wind erosion.”

He said much of his Blaine County, Okla., cropland is sandy and no-till will allow him to continue planting on it instead of converting it to grassland. Rotation also will help build up soil organic matter.

“Putting grain in the rotation will help wheat yields,” he said. “Leaving residue on the land will benefit the soil.”

Cost-share funds from the North Canadian River Project helped pay for a no-till drill, a John Deere single-disk, air seed unit. He also hopes a three-year carbon credit sequestration contract will help him move from conventional to no-till production.

He said the program, with a $50,000 contract cap, will not cover all the expenses he’ll bear converting to no-till, but it will help with equipment and higher chemical costs. He sprayed last fall and planted wheat in residue. He’ll also plant grain behind some 2008-crop wheat, into the stubble.

“I may try two years in an alternate crop and then go back to wheat for several years,” Webb said. “I may try wheat, milo, corn and wheat or may occasionally fallow a field to clean it up.”

He’s been hesitant to rotate to grain. “I don’t want to lose money on a rotation crop.” Recent improvements in grain prices made rotation more feasible and offered him an opportunity to do something he’s wanted to do for years. “I’ve been interested in being a grain farmer for a while,” he said.

He’s watched neighbors switch to no-till over the past few years and learned from their experience. “They say rotation is essential in no-till production,” Webb said.

He’s making some significant adjustments. “I grew up with conventional tillage. I plowed every two years on some land and every year in tighter soils. I had cut back on tillage the last few years.”

He said planting will be a bit more difficult with no-till because of the residue. He owns a double-disk opener drill and said it works well for fall-seeded crops. “But if I’m switching to no-till I want to do it right.”

He’s grown milo and corn before, did alright with the milo and “learned a lot” with corn.

“I’ve grown milo twice, before I decided to switch to no-till.” He said milo is a “cattle friendly crop; if it fails I can always graze it.”

He planted milo behind wheat and made 50 bushels per acre, an acceptable yield.

“I planted Roundup Ready corn and didn’t manage it properly. Crabgrass hurt,” he said.

He made from 30 to 45 bushels per acre. “I learned from it and it was a small acreage. But the possibility of growing grain excites me.”

He’ll plant Roundup Ready corn. “It’s the ultimate tool. I have fields with crabgrass problems, which is okay on grazing land, but not where I’m trying to grow grain.”

He said crabgrass was not a problem when he was using a moldboard plow. “We buried the seed.”

He’s also considering doublecrop soybeans, no-tilled into wheat stubble. “Production costs will be low and if it works I’ll make some money. If it’s just marginally successful, I’ll get some nitrogen from the soybeans, and it if fails, I won’t be out a lot of money.”

A precision planter could be a next step for no-till row crops to get “the advantage of precision planting.”

He’s aware of precision agriculture advantages and has used GPS on sprayers for several years and just bought a John Deere AutoTrac to control overlap.

Webb said he’s moved into grain crop rotation and reduced tillage over time. “Farmers are slow to change. We don’t bet the farm on a new practice.”

His cropping system has been wheat or rye for grain and grazing. He runs a cow/calf operation and holds his calves and sometimes buys more to graze on wheat or rye. “I can sell the calves or stocker them,” he said. “It all depends on the rain.”

He got away from rye this year because it does not have the yield potential of wheat.

He’s planted wheat later the last few years to take advantage of higher grain prices. “Grain or grazing decisions depend on the price of grain and the price of cattle. Every decision is based on economics.”

Lately, economics of grazing cattle have not looked good. “With $500 to $1,000 per ton for fertilizer, we can’t raise cattle.”

He said the 2009 wheat crop looks good. “We planted later to take advantage of wheat prices. Cattle did not look that good.”

He’s made other changes to improve efficiency. “On-farm storage offers benefits as we move into alternate crops,” he said. “I started building storage facilities about five years ago. If necessary, we can bring in milo or corn, blow air on to dry it.”

He said even with some recent reductions in fertilizer prices production costs continue to go up. He hopes changes he’s making to his operation will allow him to remain competitive.

He’s also excited about the potential for more drought-tolerant corn. “Companies are working on those traits and tell us we will be able to add corn to our rotation successfully,” he said.

No-till may be a crucial element to improve efficiency and make the land more productive. Webb said keeping some cover on his land year-round will help him conserve moisture and keep soil in place during windy spring seasons. And conserving moisture is crucial here.

“We’re right on the edge, here,” he said. “We can get rain or not. We just never know.”

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TAGS: Corn
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