Archive for May, 2011

Spring Farming

Saturday, May 14th, 2011

truck parked near the creek

The creek crossing to our field

Ah, another May in the foothills and mountains with snow showers and temperatures in the high 30’s in store. I am getting the hang of this wait and see on planting rather than just planting by date. I am glad I discarded corn as a summer crop because if I wanted to harvest by early October I should have it in the ground now. Nevertheless, I think we can see rises in food prices in the future. In the meantime I’m happy for the additional rain because it will put more growth on my cover crop and help the grain crop fill out. One farmer’s setback is another’s benefit.

On the other hand, it could be in the 80’s next week. From what I read, these wide swings could get even wider with climate change. I am working towards adapting our food production to meet those changes. We’ve got a huge snow pack this year but only two years ago we were in near drought conditions for irrigation water and thousands of acres of farmland were taken out of production. Even in this year of plenty snow I can see how dependent we are. You may have read of the rupture of the Bear River Canal below Rollins Lake just recently. It was mostly noted in the papers as a temporary disruption to residential customers. However, my soil consultant in Sheridan farms rice and had already done all his field prep when the break happened and now cannot plant at all because the window will have passed by the time service is restored. It’s estimated that 2300 acres of rice will not be planted this year as a result of that break. It’s a mixed bag: some growers will be hurt, but that will give a price boost to the growers who do have water. Such is farming.

Conservation Tillage and Adventures with a Cantankerous Tractor

Tuesday, May 10th, 2011

24 tons of compost being unloaded from a semi truckI’ve been trying for awhile to get compost and oyster shell lime for my fertilization program, as indicated by soil tests, and at the last moment the local fertilizer supplier for non-organic products agreed to rent me their spreader and the organic compost supplier was able to get me 48 tons of compost mixed with gypsum which was also needed in the fertilizer program.

As I was waiting for that to get delivered I got a window of dry weather in the middle of November so the ground was just barely dry enough to work.  I started on the acreage that would get the cover crop but it was evident that it would take four passes with a disc to get it smooth enough to plant.  (Editor: A disc is an implement with rows of steel discs that slice and turn over the soil from 3 to 6 inches deep that you pull behind the tractor.) At lunch on the third pass I shut off the tractor and when I went to start it diesel fuel squirted from the fuel system priming pump.  The rubber diaphragm had apparently gotten old and cracked…and it was a one-piece component that couldn’t be rebuilt.  I called the dealer—three days and $266 to get a replacement. I ordered it but watched the clouds build up for the next rain while the tractor sat in the field.

I got the tractor part and then had to wait 3 more days for the ground to dry again.  At that point the ten day forecast showed more rain on the way in a few days.  It seemed like I might have to choose between planting the cover crop and planting the grain but I gambled and decided to plant the cover crop.  It took me 15 minutes to put the new pump on the tractor and I was on my way.  The field was still kind of lumpy because it had been in pasture the previous year, so for the last pass I improvised a drag behind the disk.  I took two eight-foot forklift fork extensions and chained them to the back of the disc at angles so they wouldn’t plow up too much dirt [Editor: this is known as “ghetto farming”].  blue tractor and compostAfter some experimenting with angles they worked pretty well to break up clots and level the field.  Every farmer would like to have all the implements necessary but sometimes you have to make do with what you have.  I was on my last pass and the tractor died while I was driving.  It started again, went a hundred yards and did it again.  I reprimed the system with the priming pump, bled the injector lines to get any air out, and tried again.  Same thing.  In the end I concluded that the fuel pump in the tank had failed.  It was Saturday afternoon at 3 p.m. and the dealer was closed, so I was out of business for the weekend.

I commute to my fields so I eventually called a mechanic who lives nearby and had him find a new pump and install it for $500.  I was back in business by Tuesday morning, but the forecast was for more rain by Friday. I was just about done preparing for the cover crop so I went ahead and planted it and then started disking the field for the grain.  I had a hard time getting the stalks from the bell beans mixed into the soil and so went over the field twice, fearing that the grain drill (planter) wouldn’t cut through the trash.  At that point I could see that I really needed to start spreading compost.  Thursday morning I got the lime spreader and started trying to put on the three tons per acre that was the minimum.  Well, the compost was so wet it wouldn’t go out of the spreader consistently.  I had to stop about six times per load and climb up on the spreader with a fence post and knock it down.  By the time I got twenty tons on it was already noon.  I knew I wouldn’t get any lime spread if I didn’t let go of my goal of thirty tons of compost.  The lime I had was old and proved to be very difficult to load.  After spending thirty minutes loading, which should have taken ten, I found that the lime was even worse to spread than the compost.  It took me an hour to get that out of the spreader.  By that time it was 3:00 p.m.

I gave up on the lime and got my seed and started planting.  The soil condition wasn’t great—kind of ridged and too soft—but there wasn’t much choice.  I didn’t bother to save any leftover seed after I finished each variety of grain.  I just ran it out onto the ground.  I finally finished planting at 8:00 p.m by the light of the moon.  I’d never had any headlights and never needed them before, so I was lucky it was bright out.  I tarped the drill and tractor, put away the seed, and went home.  As it turned out it didn’t rain until late morning Friday so I could have spread more compost but there was no way of knowing.  The rain set in and never stopped for any length of time through December.  At this point there’s no way to know how the crop will turn out.  A few areas flooded and won’t grow anything but most of the crop is coming up pretty well, though the weeds are doing better.  There will be a lot of grain cleaning to do after harvest.

Moon photo courtesy of Zmtomako

Cover-crop, cash-crop rotations: saving the environment and your checkbook

Tuesday, May 3rd, 2011

I’ve mentioned before that on my small scale, and given my commute to farm, all the time and machinery and fuel and labor adds a considerable cost per pound to my grain. I’d really like to be able to make it more affordable so more people could enjoy it and I’d get some more economy of scale. So I’ve been looking into the thirty years of research at Rodale Institute on organic cropping systems…specifically no-till. That is a system where you plant your cash crop into an existing mulch or living cover crop. No-till production of corn and soybeans has been well established in that time, but it relied on herbicides to kill the cover crop and any weeds. Rodale has been working on the organic side of that using a roller to kill the cover crop, but their research is oriented to the wetter climate of the Midwest and East. In California it’s not clear how well their system works because there have been some anecdotal failures.

Recently, a video was placed on the ATTRA (Appropriate Technology Transfer to Rural Areas) website showing research done in North Dakota aiming at continuous organic no-till that has me excited. You can watch it if you want, but be warned that it’s an hour long:

A local Soil Conservation District has done extensive work with local ranchers on improving soil health with cover crops there, based on the idea that it was all native prairie at one time which had huge stores of organic matter and perennial plants that sustained it for thousands of years and fed the seemingly limitless herds of buffalo. the farmA prinicipal part of that health would seem to be the microbiological life of the soil, as I mentioned in my previous post on tillage. The soils there are sandy loams without high fertility and they only get about 16 inches of water a year. Plowing up the soil loses a lot of the soil moisture and makes it hard for fungus, bacteria, and nematodes to survive. Since they help extract plant nutrients from the mineral soil it’s vital to support them.

Their research has been based on always having cover on the soil, avoiding tillage (plowing, disking, or otherwise turning over the soil), and using grazing animals to process the cover crops so planting of cash crops can be done. They use as many as fourteen species of plants in the cover crop mix, attempting to replicate the diversity of native prairie. The grazing down of the cover crop avoids driving heavy tractors over the soil and ads food for the microbiological life in the form of manure, hair, and saliva [1]. They did side-by-side trials at their Menokan Farm test site with compost and compost tea on one side and nothing but the cover on the other. The corn in both plots outyielded the county average and, even without compost or tea, had yields within a few bushels of the composted side. The idea is that from here on they will plant a cover crop into the corn stubble after grazing, graze that down, plant a cash crop into the cover crop stubble, and so on. No messing with the soil. Now that’s exciting.

the tractor and the disked cover cropThe Land Institute in Salina, Kansas has been working towards restoring the prairie while producing grain for many years. On their website you can see photos of soil cross sections of native prairie soil and soils that have been tilled since settlement. The native soils are about three feet deeper! The Land Institute has been trying to breed perennial wheat varieties that could be harvested and never disturb the soil, but success there is still decades away. What excites me about the North Dakota trials is that it’s something that can be done now to rebuild soil and, by the way, sequester carbon. Living plants all hold carbon that is released in the atmosphere when they are killed and decay. Soil organic matter holds twice as much carbon as plants and while soil organic matter comprised six to ten percent of untilled soil, today’s typical fields only hold one to three percent. Rodale Institute has done thirty years of research on the subject and concludes that with soil organic matter returned to the levels they achieved in their test fields, the 434 million acres of farmland in the U.S. would sequester carbon dioxide to the equivalent of taking one car off the road for every two acres. That’s only their research but it holds great promise.

Admittedly, North Dakota has a different climate and soil than California Central Valley and foothills. For one thing, we have soils very deficient in calcium, as I explained in the last post. But they are worse off for organic matter so the comparisons are not entirely inappropriate. One concern for the long-term future that I have when looking at my soils and most agricultural land is that our supplies of mined gypsum and lime are finite just as petroleum is. I need to add a lot of both of those two but somehow I have to avoid doing it forever. I think that’s where the microbiology will come in.

the combine at work in the fieldI am planning to do some of my own trials to see if I can use continuous cover crop/cash crop rotations. There is a cattle farmer who is renting land where I’m farming and he has divided my thirty acres into three plots. I’m hoping to put in a multi-species cover crop on the grain stubble in the fall of this year and have him put his cattle on it in late winter, taking soil tests before and after the grazing to see what happens. I will be plowing down my legume cover crop on the plot where I’ll plant grain this coming fall so that I can get some serious increase in organic matter. The soil tests on the grazed plot will guide what I do in coming years. If I can get good increase in organic matter and balance the minerals with surface applications of lime and gypsum, I hope that one day I can put away the disc and just plant into stubble. That would not only save lots of carbon dioxide emissions but would save me a lot of money in fuel, tractor repairs, commuting, and sitting on the tractor. My grain would become much more affordable as a result. That’s my project for the next few years. I’ll keep you posted on the results.

[1] The tests aren’t entirely organic because some of the fields started out with heavy weed pressure so they wanted to give the cover crop a running start with herbicides to suppress the weeds. After the one application of herbicide, though, they just grew a cover, grazed it down, and planted corn right into the stubble.