Reduced tillage system aids NE Texas bean, corn farmer

Andy Moss stands waist deep in a sea of undulating soybean stalks that maintain a deep green hue despite triple digit Texas heat and a brisk breeze. Moss bends to the soil surface, nearly disappearing from sight under the thick canopy of soybean plants. He digs his pocketknife into the soil and finds moisture less than two inches down — a good sign that the fully loaded stalks will yield well.

Moss looks to the Northeast, across the Red River from Lamar County and into Oklahoma, spots a collection of darkening clouds more south than east, and evaluates the possibility of a much-needed afternoon shower.

“If it was right over there,” he says, pointing about 20 degrees north of the cloud formation, “we’d be getting rain — might anyway.”

Rain by near the end of July, Moss says, would mean a bumper crop of soybeans, possibly 50 bushels per acre or more from this field and better than average from most of his 1,400-acre crop in this Northeast Texas county.

He’s a bit anxious about this soybean crop and says he might wish he had planted some milo instead of so many beans this year, “if we don’t get rain soon. This is my first year with so many soybeans.” But with a fair yield and excellent price prospects, soybeans look promising. Several fields, he says, have 40-bushel potential with one more rain.

Moisture is the key. He does all he can to make every bit of moisture count on both his corn and soybean crop.

“We’ve been on a reduced tillage program ever since we’ve been in Lamar County,” he says. “That’s about seven years now.” He pulled up stakes from near Greenville, Texas, in Hunt County, to move to Lamar County where he farms some 4,000 acres of row crops and 1,000 in pasture and hay in Red River bottomland.

Less tillage makes sense in a lot of ways, he says. “It’s more fuel efficient,” a huge advantage with record-high energy prices. He also uses less labor.

“Moisture conservation is a big plus and the residue we hold from one crop to the other improves the soil and helps shade it during hot weather.”

That’s a double-edged plow point, however. Residue also keeps soil a bit cooler in the early spring and may delay germination for corn and bean crops. Moss often uses a one-pass system, with limited tillage to open the ground and improve early germination. Strip till doesn’t work in these soils and typically moist springtime planting conditions, he says.

He may use the one-pass system in heavy residue. “Residue doesn’t work into the soil here the way it does in Hunt County (Greenville). I just get a better start with the one-pass tillage. Warmer soils early give me a better start and crops seem to do better over the long run.

“I use a Krause Landsman (a do-all) with row disks and a field cultivator attachment. I make a separate pass to plant.” That program works for early-planted soybeans and corn.

“I had some fields I had to till this year to get (harvest) ruts out,” he says. He broke those and ran the Krause Landsman before planting.

He expects a good corn harvest. “It’s made,” he says, “and it looks decent.”

He drives through the bottomlands pointing out some of his best fields, stops in a cloud of dust and walks into a cornfield that’s already amber-tinted and drying out to harvest level quickly. Moss pulls back the shucks to expose half-a-dozen full, bright yellow, heavy ears. He hefts a few ears, makes a few calculations and estimates a 175-bushel per acre yield potential. He hit close to 200 on some fields last year.

He rotates corn behind soybeans when he can, but plants some continuous corn. “I have fields that have been in corn six out of the last seven years,” he says. “But not all my land is good corn land and corn is my best crop. I typically make more money from corn and wheat than with soybeans, so two-thirds of my corn acreage follows corn.”

He says corn on corn does well, but he may need more inputs without a closer rotation — Bt corn hybrids help. He plants all NC+ corn hybrids and uses stacked gene selections, either VT-3 or Triple-Stack. VT-3 hybrids include NC+ 5393 and 5435. NC+ 5223 and 5434 are Triple-Stack hybrids. He also plants a 105-day hybrid, 3610 RR.

“About 50 percent of the corn is in VT-3.” He gets glyphosate herbicide tolerance, rootworm, corn borer and corn earworm protection from the Triple Stack and VT-3 hybrids.

“Earworm pressure can be high in this area,” he says.

“I plant all NC+ hybrids because I see a yield advantage.” The 5434 hybrid produces a smaller plant. “That means less residue to deal with in the next crop.”

He bumps planting rates to about 30,000 plants per acre, in 30-inch rows. “We cut back to 27,000 one year and didn’t make the yield,” he says. “Potential for a big yield starts above 29,000 plants per acre in this environment.”

Soybean varieties include mostly Asgrow Roundup Ready selections.

Moss has several double-crop fields, soybeans planted behind wheat in late June. “If the soybeans can stay alive until September they’ll do okay,” he says. “We usually get rain in late August or early September. Doublecrop soybeans don’t set pods until September and I have combined beans as late as December.”

He plants wheat behind fall-harvested soybeans. “I get an advantage from additional nitrogen following soybeans with wheat. He usually applies 100 pounds of a 9-23-30 analysis for wheat behind a soybean crop.

He plants some no-till wheat and says one field made 104 bushels per acre this year. “Every year I’ll have one or two fields that will make 100 bushels of wheat per acre.”

He may plow some of his long-term no-till fields soon. “I’m seeing some compaction problems.”

Moss says global positioning system units also improve efficiency. He uses an auto-steer unit on his sprayer and covers more acreage in less time with the GPS technology. He also decreases potential for overspray. “I save time, energy and fatigue.”

“I have a GPS unit on my sprayer and all but one of my tractors. I’ll put one on it when I rework it,” he says. He has yield monitors on combines, but not guidance systems, “yet.” Moss says he farms good land. “It’s all bottomland and is close, not spread out. That means I can farm it with minimum equipment, two row-crop tractors and one medium-size one.” Reduced tillage systems also allow him to limit the amount of equipment and labor he needs to farm 1,200 acres of corn and 1,400 of soybeans, in addition to winter wheat. He says technology allows him to streamline the operation and improve profit potential.

As Moss drives us back to the Dairy Queen just outside Paris, Texas, he looks back to the east at the gathering and darkening clouds. “We may get a rain out of that yet,” he says.

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