Day 18

Screen Shot 2014-06-14 at 22.38.13My last day in Kansas was a Saturday, so I’m grateful people gave up some of their weekend to show me around. First up was Josh Lloyd, who lives in a very exposed house looking out over the plains. I would have liked to get a photo of the setting as it seemed pretty unique to me, but I couldn’t find a good angle.

I anted to climb up the elevator to see the view, but it was blowing a gale and I was too chichen

I wanted to climb up the elevator to see the view, but it was blowing a gale and I was too chicken

It goes without saying, but Josh is a no-till farmer, and he grows mainly wheat and soybeans, with a bit of corn and some sorghum. Wheat has traditionally been the main crop here, and they have taken big strides in increasingly yields recently. In the 16 years Josh has been on the farm they have gone from 2.7t/ha to 4.7t/ha. He puts this down to attention to detail; it used to be a plant and forget crop, now they carefully control seed rates, fertiliser, and even apply the odd fungicide.

This 40' drill can place seed and two types of solid fertiliser

This 40′ drill can place seed and two types of solid fertiliser

Wheat is normally the first crop, harvested at the end of June, and all fields are then double cropped, normally with soybeans. These are harvested in the autumn and the process starts again. Josh has been looking hard at cover crops, but he has calculated that if he used them instead of a second cash crop, then over a 6 year period he would be $1.25M worse off. You would need a serious amount of benefit from the cover crops to pay for that.

Don't try this at home

Don’t try this at home

However, this big number assumes that there is no cash income from the cover crop. In the next line of his spreadsheet there is a calculation for using the biomass for grazing cattle on. Amazingly, for me anyway, the figures compare favourably with growing a soybean crop. If you combine this with the soil benefits you can accrue from the cover, it seems like a no brainer – assuming you do not mind looking after animals. I suggested maybe he should try a 3 year perennial ley in the rotation if there was so much money in beef; Josh was way ahead of me and has already put down about 50 acres to a very similar legume rich ley to the one we have at home.IMG_3087There are 35 cows on the farm now, and the plan is to get up to 100 in the next few years. At the moment they are calving on some semi-native grassland, which is being strip grazed. I would hesitate to define it as mob grazing as they are not stocked very tightly and the rest period is not very long for a brittle climate. But what would I know, I’m making it up as I go along! Another feed source for cattle is the old maize fields, some of which had been sown with an inter row companion crop at planting time. This cover tends to die before harvest, but the cows love to eat the residue.

Following some advice, Josh tried to plant maize with a legume companion crop last year, in the hope it would reduce or eliminate the need to apply artificial N. “It’s BS”, he told me – all the plants showed a nitrogen deficiency so he treated some with 30kg/ha and some with 60kg. The latter yielded double the former.

He has an approach that I like, whereby he will apply nutrients to a small area by hand to see what the response is before applying on the whole field. This has uncovered some misdiagnoses from the ‘experts’ before it was too late.

Organic matter levels on left, P tests results on right

Organic matter levels on left, P tests results on right

In the field in front of the farm, a section of it spent many decades as an area for holding cattle in the winter. You can see it clearly in the picture above, in the top left of the field. Not entirely surprisingly, this area out-yields the rest of the field, and not by a small amount. In a wheat yield map I saw, it had a clear advantage of around 30%. This field has been zone tested for just about everything you can imagine, pH, P, K, Zn, Mg etc etc. There are only two tests that show a correlation with the old paddock (and hence the yield map); organic matter and available P. The really interesting thing is that the OM levels are higher, but the P levels are much lower – to a point they should be considered deficient. This would suggest to me that the organic matter is making the nutrients available to the plant much more easily, even though there is physically less around. It also makes it very clear that soil test results need to be treated with great caution.

Soil erosion spotted in northern Kansas, the fist time I have seen a field here that looks like it has been ploughed and power harrowed

Soil erosion spotted in northern Kansas, the fist time I have seen a field here that looks like it has been ploughed and power harrowed. I don’t actually know what the crop, maybe maize, or possibly Sudan grass

The afternoon visit was hastily arranged, and so I was even more grateful that Robin & Kelly Griffeth could see me. They may be right in the middle of Tornado Alley (by this time the wind was really picking up, and they told me a storm was coming that night), but they are, in Robin’s words, “15 miles north of the wheat belt, and 15 miles south of the corn belt”. I don’t know what goes between two belts, but they make their money with soybeans, which yield up to 6t/ha.

The problem with this is that it is a terrible crop for planting wheat into in the autumn as it leaves the soil so dry. They also are finding that it does not produce enough high carbon residue, and the soils are degrading because of that. One option is to grow sunflowers after wheat, instead of the beans (they are double cropping here too), and they will often grow a companion crop of peas in with the sunflower. They believe the peas fix a bit of N, but they also attract beneficial insects, meaning insecticides are no longer required.

A pea & oat cover crop before sunflowers. Next year they will grow a similar mix but take it to harvest.

A pea & oat cover crop, before sunflowers. Next year they will grow a similar mix but take it to harvest. Although the winters are very harsh here, there is some evidence that planting them with other crops will allow the peas to surive the cold. Alternatively this field would make great forage for cattle, something they may try in the future

The traditional farming method here would be to grow continuous wheat, and leave the fields fallow over summer & autumn. Kelly was asked by one farmer how much money he made growing sunflowers in this gap – the answer was $1.70/acre. The other farmer thought this was ridiculous – why go to all the bother for that much money? But the fallow fields are not entirely left to their own devices, they are sprayed off 3 times to control the weeds, at a cost of around $50/acre. So the actual net benefit of the sunflowers is $1.70 + $50, plus benefits to soil health (if you believe in such things). As a further bonus, they feel the following wheat crops are better as well.

I didn’t think there was much to write about today, but that’s over 1200 words; amazing what happens on a Sunday morning in the middle of Nebraska with nothing better to do.

PS No tornados last night, but there was an epic thunder storm. I think this motel wants to keep its grass green; they kept the lawn sprinklers on in the middle of a torrential downpour. Belt & braces.

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