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.
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
Drill At Work
December 1st, 2016
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
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.
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
February 14th, 2012
After a hiatus to catch up on mill orders and a backpack trip, I went to the farm today. The teff crop is uneven due mostly to a less-than-perfect seedbed. I worked it hard before planting but that particular patch of ground is really prone to being cloddy if at all wet, and moisture was variable. It was already late June when I planted, too. In any case, what came up looks pretty good. I just hope I’ll have enough to meet demand.
I spent three hours discing (using and implement with steel discs that chop and turn the soil) lightly to kill weeds on the ground where I will plant grain and cover crops this fall. At this point I must use mechanical weed control because the weed pressure is so great. No matter what the weather, weeds always grow faster than the crop. In a year or two I hope to use the cover crops to suppress the weeds and reduce the tractor work and diesel consumption.
In early September I hope to spread the 50 tons of compost, 20 tons of lime, and 10 tons of gypsum before the grain planting later in the fall. My soils are low in calcium and wild radish and morning glory love that condition.
In the meantime I’m hauling the grain from June harvest back home to clean and store.
February 14th, 2012
I finally finished my grain harvest this past week, almost exactly a month later than last year. The cool, rainy weather all spring slowed down maturing of the grain heads and then the surprise half inch of rain at the end of June were the cause. Fortunately I was able to harvest the vulnerable oats and Sonora wheat the day before the storm. They have very long straw and could have lodged (fallen over) if there was wind with the rain. A few days of sun and I got the red wheat last. Yield is poor as I expected because of poor planting conditions in the fall but better than I expected. The oats are in high demand for breakfast cereal so I really wanted to get them. I plan to be ready to plant way, way ahead of time this fall.
May 14th, 2011
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.
May 10th, 2011
I’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”]. After 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