No-till Planting Results 2018

October 27th, 2018

Things looked promising when I last posted in May. The rye crop and cover crop looked vigorous. However, late rain stimulated a field bindweed (looks like morning glory but strangles crops) explosion in the mowed cover crop where it was no longer shaded by the rye. Also, by the time the cash crop dried down enough to harvest, I could see that the rye growth was very spotty. My conclusion was that a thick growth of medusahead (an invasive non-native grass) had prevented germination of a lot of what I planted. This is where theory ran up against reality on the ground.


I was supposed to be buying a mid-60’s combine from a friend at the end of May but it didn’t end up getting it on site until July. While getting it running in the 90-100 F weather we discovered a bunch of things that needed repair. My friend did run the machine through the rye to test it but the grain yield was so poor I decided not to buy the machine or bother with the crop.


I will post more soon on developments since then. Below is a picture from the day Natural Resources Conservation Service staffers came out to do annual soil testing. We’re chatting while waiting for the timed water infiltration test is proceeding.

Weird Winter No-Till Results

May 25th, 2018

After a December with almost no rain, some rain but temperatures in the 80’s in January, then dry and very cold in February, we ended up with a cool, damp May. Today it’s 50 F and rained for a half day and rye crop and cover crops continue to grow. Next week it’s supposed to be in the 90’s. In mid-winter it looked like I’d wouldn’t get much out of the planting but it all turned around. This first picture is mid-winter.


The second shows mowing some of the cover crop at the beginning of May to kill the legumes before full bloom to maximize nitrogen gain. Cows were supposed to be doing it but circumstances got in the way. In any case, the no-till planting of cover crop and rye crop had mixed results. Some places had great germination and growth, others almost nothing. Planting a mix of large-seeded bell beans with rye and radish may not have worked well because of the different planting depths needed. Now we’ll see if I can get a harvest out of the rye.

November 17th, 2017

I breathed a sigh of relief this week when I finally got my crops planted. I was committed to doing it no-till (not turning the soil) because I wanted to avoid turning up weed seed that would sprout, wanted to leave the soil microorganisms undisturbed, and wanted to save all the fuel and labor of tillage (turning soil with a disc harrow). In a later post I will discuss the no-till idea and its benefits to the soil.


I hired a local farmer with a very large (30 ft. wide) no-till drill (planter) to put in the crop but had to wait until his schedule allowed. This planter has a sharp coulter disc that cuts through residue on the ground, followed by two opener discs that make a slot in the ground where the seed tube drops seed, followed by a press wheel that closes the slot. With the rainy season beginning I was worried he might not get in to the field. Fortunately, he was able to come in a dry window and did 30 acres in a few hours. Good thing, because it rained all the next night and most of the day.


He planted one field to the rye and a mix of rye, bell beans, and daikon radish to 21 acres. The rye scavenges nitrogen that the beans will create from their roots, and the radish makes large holes in the soil that allow water and oxygen to penetrate.


October 9th, 2017

As some of you locals have surmised, I have left the grain milling business, though not the farming. The birth of my first grandchild and the desire to get loose for more backpacking, bicycling, and travel before I get too old convinced me that it was time. I sold the equipment and grain inventory to Drew Speroni who has worked for me for a few years.

On the farming side, I am excited to be entering into what I call data farming. I have mentioned in past posts applying for USDA grants to experiment with cover crops, no-till planting, and rotational grazing. The grants came through, so I will plant some acres to a cover crop mix of cereal rye, daikon radish, and bell beans. I will plant a smaller amount to cereal rye alone for a seed crop. I am paying for a special heavy planter to put in the crops without any plowing or disking. The idea is that this type of planting does not disturb the microbial life in the soil and that means more organic matter, fertility, and CO2 storage.

In early spring Mark Lefler, who grazes cattle on this ranch, will be putting his cows on the cover crop ground, concentrated in small plots and moving them frequently. I hope to control weeds and harvest the benefits of manure this way and he gets forage for the cows.

As I said, it’s all experimental but I plan on learning a lot. Agriculture will need to change with a changing climate, to mitigate the damage of past practices, and to feed a lot more people. I hope I can help.

Farm News February 2017

February 7th, 2017

There hasn’t been a whole lot of farm activity for the last month. As all the Californians know, it just kept raining all January—26 inches in Nevada County. I have been down to check the fields and growth of everything, including weeds fortunately, has been slow.


As I mentioned in my last post the rye leaf tips are showing purple and very pale lower down, at least in some of the fields. After consulting with Amigo Bob Cantisano of Organic Ag Advisors in Nevada City I am putting on 150 lbs./acre of organic potassium sulfate when the fields get a break from rain. The plants can take up that much quickly but not lose too much to leaching from the soil, plus it won’t break the bank. That should give the plants a boost when the soil warms up and things start to pop. Addressing shortages of soil phosphates is a longer-term project.


Meanwhile, I have my application in with Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) for funding for no-till on part of the acres and cover crops on another portion. I should hear yay or nay later in the spring.


Planting Grain In Untilled Soil

December 30th, 2016

On November 18 I started my experiment with no-till grain growing. Using my 1960’s John Deere double disc drill, I planted cereal rye on 26 acres. The soil was moist but firm so the tractor didn’t make ruts. The double discs that V together in each row cut into the soil, at least where there wasn’t too much crop residue, to get the seed in about a half inch. Three weeks on, the rye was coming up nicely. Now at the end of the year, I am seeing noticeable potassium deficiency in the plants, evidenced by a purpling of the leaf tips. My soil tests confirm this. So now I have to decide if I spend $3000 on potassium sulfate to mitigate the problem. I’ll keep you posted. I currently have about $1000 in seed, plus fuel and labor.

Rye At Three Weeks

Rye At Three Weeks

Drill At Work

Drill At Work

Testing again

December 2nd, 2016

Sorry, don’t mind this!

No-till Project

December 1st, 2016
NRCS staff Pa Yang, Litza Lopez-Ramos, and Han Nguyen

NRCS staff Pa Yang, Litza Lopez-Ramos, and Han Nguyen

As I mentioned in my last post, uncertain weather the last few years and weed problems have pushed me towards an experiment with no-till grain growing. As part of the process I need baseline information about the health of my soils. I applied to the Yuba/Sutter Natural Resources Conservation Service office, a federal agency that tries to do what the name says. They have funding each year to help with projects that conserve soil, water, and air. No-till and cover crops fall under those tasks.


The first step was for the staff of NRCS to come out and do soil tests on each field for soil texture, worm count, ph, bulk density, carbon dioxide extraction, salts, and water infiltration rate. I am doing regular soil testing for organic matter, nitrogen, calcium, magnesium, sulfur, manganese, boron and cation exchange capacity. All that shows what the chemical balance in the soil is like and what’s deficient. Testing in following years will show what the effects of no-till are.


A couple weeks ago Pa Yang, Han Nguyen, and Litza Lopez-Ramos came out to the farm with their equipment and I helped some while they did their tests on two of the fields. Last week they came and did the other two fields. They will do lab tests and then put a report together with my soil tests. Then I can apply for funding to help with the project.

Han doing the CO2 extraction test

Han doing the CO2 extraction test

counting worms

counting worms

Fall 2016 Farm Update

November 20th, 2016

It’s been a long time since I posted something. Part of my omission was laziness and the other was uncertainty about plans for the future. The drought that badly hurt two of my crops in the last three years made me wary about planting. Last winter would have been the year to invest in seed and fertilizer since it rained normally. I got a late start and soil conditions weren’t great for planting, so my friend Mark Lefler and I broadcast cereal rye seed on my acreage and used some chainlink fence as a drag to cover it with soil.


I had intended that when the rye grew up Mark would put his cows on small segments of field at a time, letting them graze down weeds, and then moving them to a new patch in a couple days. Weeds have been a big problem and with this system I hoped to get manure for fertilizer and keep the weeds at bay. At a certain growth stage for the plants we would pull all the cows and let the rye make a grain crop for me to harvest. It was so cold in December and January that the rye didn’t grow much and then it rained so much that he couldn’t get his cows across the creek from another pasture. In late springI let him graze all except for 5 acres. I didn’t harvest that in the end because it was thin and my harvester was giving me fits.


This year I’m trying again. I really want to make a no-till system work for several reasons. One is the weed control, second is the manure, third is to preserve the microbial life in the soil that provides nutrients and holds carbon, and last is to try to control costs. There is lots of evidence and promise in making healthy soils that grow crops better and help keep CO2 out of the atmosphere.


In my next post I’ll detail some of the steps I’m taking.

Mark spreading rye seed with a spinner spreader.

Mark spreading rye seed with a spinner spreader.

Spring Farm Update

April 23rd, 2012

vetch cover crop

Through all the months from last October onwards where it rained only a little I was alternately anxious, hopeful, despairing, and finally resigned to not having a crop. My wheat and oats were about a foot high in February, the rye only a few inches and I knew the window for an adequate growth period was closing fast.

Then, lo and behold, it started to rain and did so for weeks. I even started to worry that we’d have a repeat of last year’s cold, wet spring where everything grew poorly. The rained stopped in mid-April, though, and the sun came out. I finally went to the farm last week to look and I think this will be the best crop I’ve ever had. It had jumped from a foot to two feet in just three weeks. Even the vetch cover crop had gone from a few inches to two feet high.

neighbor's calves checking me out


The stands of both hard red wheat and oats were thick, tall, and pretty weed-free. Unfortunately, the rye that I think of as extremely hardy doesn’t look like it will head out unless we get some more rain. That’s too bad because some of my customers are really looking forward to rye flour, but it’s not my biggest seller. I do credit the tons of compost, lime, and gypsum I put on the wheat field last fall as helping produce this great crop.

hard red spring wheat