Jensen Farm, Latah County, Idaho

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Location Location::46.7993412, -116.5559894
Author Author::Wayne Jensen
County County::Latah County
State State::Idaho

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Background

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Wayne Jensen farms in the high rainfall area of the Palouse. He is one of an increasing number of growers developing spring direct-seeding systems that rely on minimal fall tillage after winter wheat, instead of burning, to reduce residue loads to manageable levels. For now, Wayne is focusing his efforts on a part of his farm that is “wetter, cooler, and more erodible” than his other acres. “Rather than jump in and direct-seed my whole 3,300 acres, I want to make it work on that 1,000 acres for 4 or 5 years, first. I’m already implementing what we are now real comfortable with on the rest of the farm. I’ll continue to do that. It’s mostly a risk decision to keep losses from mistakes manageable.” On the rest of his acres, Wayne uses a mix of direct seeding, minimum tillage, and conventional tillage. He raises winter wheat, spring cereals, lentils and peas, as well as grass seed and Canola.

A commitment to soil conservation originally motivated Wayne to start direct seeding. This, and his devotion to agriculture in general, have moved Wayne and his wife, Jacie, to host a farm day every year for Palouse fourth graders. For this program, they received the 1999 Idaho Governor’s Award for Excellence in Agricultural Education/Advocacy. More than 200 students visit their farm during the course of the day to learn where their food comes from, the business of farming, and the importance of soil conservation. “We put three pallets of soil on a flatbed truck: one with bare soil, one covered with stubble, and one with a growing crop on it. We tilt them up and spray them with a garden hose and, of course, the water just pours off black from the bare soil. Water from the stubble one runs off clean. If we can just plant our crops through that residue, then the soil is protected for the whole year. I know it will work—it’s just a matter of getting there.”

A new way of farming

Wayne began direct seeding in the early 1980s by sowing winter wheat into undisturbed pea residue. “That’s the easiest way to start,” he said. I’ve maintained the direct seeding of winter wheat on the pea ground, which is a slam-dunk. I used that to learn about drills and find the best machinery out there.” He tried a variety of no-till drills during his first years, but wasn’t fully satisfied with any (see “Jensen’s No-Till Drills”). In the late 1980s, he switched to a “shank and seed” system to plant winter wheat, using a McGregor Ripper Shooter® fertilizer machine to deep-band fertilizer, followed by a set of low-disturbance drills (John Deere® 8300s). “That raises a good wheat crop, but I knew that I wanted the next step up in drills, one that could place fertilizer and seed in one pass. I ended up buying a Yielder®…and that’s what I’m still running.”

In the mid-1990s, Wayne began experimenting with direct seeding spring cereals. “I wasn’t winning the battle with erosion on that more erodible ground. I wanted to try something more, do more.” In addition, Wayne said a number of developments improved the potential for direct-seeded spring crops: “cheaper Roundup, in-crop herbicides that take the grasses out of broadleaf crops, and better equipment.” He moved cautiously into direct-seeded spring crops. “The first year I did 50 acres and it worked well. So the next year I did 200 and the year after that, 600 acres.” In 1998, “we did all our spring grains (800 acres) with the Yielder. It just takes a while to get comfortable. …Now I’ve gone together with three other farmers and we bought a John Deere® 1850(now 1860) with air delivery system,” mostly for direct-seeding spring legumes. (See “Jensen’s No-Till Drills.”)

Wayne belongs to a group of innovative growers in northern Idaho and eastern Washington—the ClearWater Direct Seeders—who hold monthly breakfast meetings in the winter and tour each others’ fields during the growing season to exchange experiences, ideas, and encouragement about direct seeding. He is quick to say he is “a ways off” from a complete direct-seed system; he still faces major challenges. However, he already has seen benefits, such as less erosion, improved soil health, and successful crops on eroded areas; and he expects other benefits, such as improved efficiency and yields. “It’s the potential that keeps me going. If we can get all the pieces together, then I think direct seeding will work, and we’ll be much better off.”

Current direct-seed system

Crops and rotation

"When we first started direct seeding we were in a winter wheat/pea rotation, just the two crops. Back then, we didn’t know what Cephalosporium stripe was, or that cheatgrass is a winter annual. We figured out we need 2 years out of winter wheat to control these problems. Now, what crops can I grow? It’s all an evolution."

Wayne switched in 1984 to a 5-year rotation of winter wheat/peas or lentils/winter wheat/spring cereal/peas or lentils. “It allowed me to keep up my base acres of wheat, when we had the government programs, and get the advantages of a 3-year rotation.” After almost three times through that rotation, Wayne says, “It did help some with the cheatgrass (downy brome)and the Cephalosporium stripe, but it’s not enough. We need to go a little further to get rid of cheatgrass and Italian ryegrass.” Wayne is switching to a 3-year rotation: winter wheat/spring cereal/peas or lentils. “I think there’s a yield advantage to being out of fall wheat for 2 years, I’m more comfortable raising spring wheat.”

Wayne also is considering a 4-year rotation, “but I’m not sure what that fourth crop would be. I’m thinking it will be Canola or mustard, but those aren’t proven yet.” He started experimenting with mustard in 1998, but has a longer history with Canola. He began growing it in the mid-1980s to satisfy the set-aside requirements of the government commodity programs. “I hated summer fallowing, so we planted Canola instead to protect the ground. I’ve kept growing roughly 80 acres of Canola every year since, trying different things to get it to work. It seems like such a good fit for us, rotation-wise.” As a broadleaf crop, it helps manage certain cereal weeds and diseases. Its deep taproot also can break up plow pans and increase water infiltration. However, Wayne says either Canola yield or price will need to improve to make it profitable for him.

In addition to his annual crops, Wayne grows 100 to 300 acres of grass seed crops (brome grass, wheat grass, and bluegrass) each year. He establishes these crops by direct seeding into barley stubble using John Deere® 455 drills. He uses the grass seed crops to improve poorer fields and to spread out his workload.

Residue management

Winter wheat on the Jensen farm typically yields about 90 bushels per acre. That is more residue than his drills can handle—to place seed at a consistent depth in good contact with the soil. Burning the residue is one solution to this problem, but Wayne says, “I’ve pretty much told myself I am not going to burn. Number one, it’s not a viable, long-term option. If everybody were doing it, it would be shut down. Number two, why would I want to give up all those nutrients and organic matter in the straw? I just need to learn to deal with it.” Wayne’s solution has been to do minimal tillage of cereal residues in the fall “just to get a little soil on top of the residue so it decomposes some over the winter. Then I just spray and seed in the spring. I’m still in the learning stages” for what fall tillage works best. “I do whatever it takes to get through it in the spring. It depends on what level of residue I have and how brave I am, and I’m getting braver every year as far as leaving more straw. That’s a learning thing.”

Wayne’s latest practice has been to chisel-plow winter wheat stubble, followed by one pass using a cultivator or a harrow to level the ground. “One of the first mistakes I made was leaving those chisel-plow ridges in the fall and then coming back and trying to level them out in the spring before I seeded. First, you bounce your sprayer all over and tear it up. Second, you waste all that moisture when you’re leveling the ground. One of our primary strategies now is to level up in the fall and leave enough straw to protect the ground.” He manages spring cereal stubble for the next pea crop similarly but with less tillage. “I chisel the heavier straw in the bottoms lightly, just run the tips of the chisel plow on it, and on other parts I leave standing stubble. Then I level it up with a cultivator or a harrow.” In some cases, “depending on the mat of straw and how good a job of spreading we did,” he will forego the chisel plowing altogether, only cultivating, harrowing, or leaving the stubble standing.
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Wayne is trying many alternatives to the chiselplow/cultivator system. He’s been pleased with the results of flailing and cultivating heavy residue. Flailing shortens the straw length, allowing him to leave more on the soil surface, but it is an expensive operation. Wayne has been less pleased with the performance of a disk-ripper for fall tillage. “The thing I dislike most about it is the tillage erosion. It moves the soil down the hill. I’d rather plow uphill than do that. Also, it leaves the ground kind of wavy.” Wayne has 1 year of experience using a heavy harrow on winter wheat stubble. He wants to find a residue management operation to disturb the residue more than the heavy harrow, but less than the flail/cultivator.

Wayne also manages residue indirectly. When selecting crop varieties he takes the residue characteristics into consideration. He uses ‘Cashup’ instead of ‘Madsen’ winter wheat because the straw degrades more readily. In 1998, he planted ‘Meltan’ barley because it has shorter straw than other varieties, such as ‘Baronesse,’ but it turned out to be slower to degrade and harder to seed through. He also sees an opportunity to manage residue with certain broadleaf crops, such as Canola. “There’s something about that thick canopy over the stubble that makes it disappear. It’s a great environment for decomposition. That’s one reason I’m still working with the Canola.”

Fertility

Wayne has not altered his fertility program significantly for direct seeding. Fertilizer rates, based on fall soil tests and expected crop yields, haven’t changed, and remain fairly consistent from year to year. He does place the bulk of the N fertilizer for winter and spring cereals seeded with his Yielder drill in a deep band between and below the seed rows at seeding. Starter fertilizer is placed with the seed. He considers fertilizer placement a major advantage of this drill. “The plants come up erect and green, with no yellow color to them. Then about a week later the roots hit the deep band and they just go, where with the conventional wheat, you see streaks. The plants are healthier and bigger where your fertilizer shanks went, but yellow and smaller elsewhere.”
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Weed and disease management

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Wayne relies on applications of a nonselective herbicide (glyphosate) to manage weeds and volunteers between direct-seeded crops. He stresses the importance of these treatments for overall weed control. “I can trace a downy brome problem in a field to a bad Roundup job 4 years ago.” For in-crop weed control, Wayne has switched from preplant residual herbicides that require incorporation to in-crop herbicides. He finds this change requires more careful timing because the window of opportunity for spraying is shorter, as is the effective time of the herbicides.
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Using nonselective herbicides for early elimination of the green growth between crops, known as the “green bridge,” has disease as well as weed management benefits. This practice prevents the carryover of pathogens that cause root diseases from one crop to the next. Until recently, Wayne made his first nonselective herbicide application in early spring. He then waited 2 to 3 weeks to let inoculum levels of the pathogens die back and sprayed again before seeding if more weeds appeared. Now he’s learned “if there are any grassy weeds at all, I need to spray first in the fall. …Then I can spray (for a second time) any time in the spring” and not worry about the green bridge. Wayne relies on rotation to manage other types of diseases. “With rotation, I think the disease issue will take care of itself. Whether we need a 3- or 4-year rotation, I don’t know yet.”

Wayne says having a good sprayer is critical for weed and disease control with direct seeding because of the greater reliance on herbicides than on tillage. In 1998, he bought a new air-assist sprayer because he was getting inconsistent performance on grassy weeds with Roundup and Hoelon. He says, “The jury is still out regarding the sprayer’s effectiveness.”

Seeding strategy

Wayne has adapted to direct seeding in a number of ways. First, he tends to seed the direct-seed fields later than his conventional ground—when the soil is warmer and dry enough to avoid problems with compaction and slicking of the seed furrow. “I wait until I can’t stand it any more and then I wait another 2 days.” He has noticed he can direct-seed ground too wet to cultivate. “If you just roll over it once with a drill, there’s a lot of spring action in the soil and it will come back, where three passes with a cultivator will do damage.”

Second, Wayne seeds more shallowly when using a no-till drill. “We place the seed just deep enough to get it in the moisture”—close to the surface since he does no spring tillage. “We leave the residue on top to protect the moisture.” On more eroded soils, he harrows after seeding to ensure a fine layer of soil covering the seed. Wayne sometimes increases the seeding rate by 10%, depending on residue and soil conditions, and on his confidence with the seed placement.

Jensen's advantages

Erosion control. “My primary motivation to start direct seeding was to prevent soil erosion.”
Farming clay knobs. “We see a big advantage in establishing a stand on eroded knobs more consistently. Spring tillage is really tough on eroded knobs. It brings up clay ribbons that get hard. Once you do that you’re done for the year. A no-till drill is perfect. It just makes a slit, puts the seed in and puts a mulch back over it without tearing up the ground. We can grow a crop on that ground and start building it back up.”
Efficiency. “It’s a big issue for me. Hired help and equipment are expensive so I want to keep them to a minimum. Otherwise, I don’t see a lot of opportunities to cut costs.” Direct seeding can reduce labor and machinery costs.
Taking out divided slopes. “With all direct seeding, I could take out the divided slopes. That would also increase efficiency.”
Moisture savings. “Our soil is saturated probably 9 out of 10 springs in this area, so I think we all start out with the same amount of moisture in the spring. But I believe I’m better off using direct seeding because I’m not losing moisture to evaporation by tilling and leaving the soil bare and hot. I retain more spring moisture and whatever comes will soak through the straw and stay there.”
Soil structure. “Our long-term no-till field (8 years of bluegrass followed by 4 years of direct seeding) has a totally different soil than the ground in transition. We had a solid mat of stubble on that field, and I still got a good stand. The soil has enough humus and structure to it that, even with a little straw tucking, I can still get good seed-to-soil contact.”
Yields. “I can’t compare yields because the ground where I direct-seed the most is poorer than my other ground, but I think the yields are going to maintain or improve over what I used to raise up there. I’m fairly confident of that. I’ll get better stand establishment in the spring because I don’t have to pull a cultivator over that land. I think I’ll have better wheat crops with the rotation and with more residue on top of it to protect the wheat from frost heaving.”

Jensen's challenges

Residue. “Planting a spring crop on winter wheat residue is still our biggest challenge.” It can fail due to “poor seed-to-soil contact, poor growing conditions in cool wet soil, and possibly a disease carry-over when going from fall wheat to spring wheat.”
Equipment for side hills. “Our side hills make direct seeding difficult in this area.” Not many drills are designed to seed consistently on slopes. “Equipment is my biggest drawback right now.”
Rotation. Wayne knows a longer rotation using more broadleaf crops would help manage weeds and diseases, as well as residue, but finding profitable crops to fit into that rotation is still a challenge.
Relying on Roundup. “My Roundup spray job is too inconsistent yet. That has to be foolproof because it’s the only shot I have. It has to be another one of those slam-dunk operations.”
Risk. “A lot of risk is involved. Your chances of failure trying something new are greater than if you do it the old way. ” Appearances. “It’s frustrating, looking at crops with all that residue—you look at your neighbor’s field and it’s nice black ground where every row shows up, and yours is coming up through the straw and you still can’t see it. It’s probably every bit as good but you just can’t see it. And then it can be tough to deal with the neighbors’ perception. You have to have thick skin.”
Slow transition. “One frustration I have is how long it takes to get comfortable doing something. …I know where I want to be, but I need to take it easy and stay in business while I get there. I’m frustrated with how slow it goes.”