Farming 2,500 or so acres of grain crops comes natural for Hannover, Va., brothers Clay and Robbie Newcomb — they are following a family tradition of excellence established by the grandfather and nurtured by the father, J.M. Newcomb.
Farming is the natural part, they agree. Staying ahead of pesticide resistant weeds and grasses, keeping input costs down to control these pests, and staying on top of commodity marketing in today’s world is a real challenge.
One cost saving measure, Robbie Newcomb says, has been staying in no-till for the past 13 years. It took a few years, he says, but now they see direct savings in labor, fuel and equipment and benefit from better water utilization and ultimately higher yields.
“We plant wheat and beans with the same drill in no-till. With so many acres to plant, no-till also allows us to get onto a wet field quicker, which is critical to staying on top of planting schedules.”
In the past couple of years they have had a problem burning back Italian ryegrass, leading them to speculate they may have developed glyphosate resistance in some fields they farm.
“We haven’t had it tested to be sure, but it seems like in some fields glyphosate won’t kill the Italian ryegrass and Gramoxone won’t burn it back enough to keep it from coming back and competing with the crop,” Robbie says.
“We typically try to take out the ryegrass with a glyphosate herbicide about two weeks prior to planting. In some fields, the glyphosate will stunt the grass enough to get the crop up, but some fields it just won’t kill it like it used to,” Clay adds.
We have some fields with triazine resistant weeds, some with ALS resistant weeds and some with glyphosate resistant weeds — we think, Clay adds.
Among the more troublesome weed problems are suspect fields with pigweed that appear to be tolerant of, if not outright resistant to glyphosate.
In reaction to the spike in fertilizer prices in 2008, the Newcomb brothers went back to a practice they tried 20 or so years back when they were farming with their father — spreading municipal sludge.
They buy the sludge, which is collected primarily from Richmond, Va., and Washington D.C., and processed by Nutra-Blend. “Some people don’t want to use it, especially on rented land, because of the odor. However, most of it is lime-stabilized, so it’s not nearly as bad as the stuff we used 20 years ago, Robbie says.
Biosolids, usually referred to as sludge, has been used by farmers for nearly 100 years and in all 50 states as an inexpensive source of nitrogen and other fertilizers. Biosolids are categorized and regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) according to their appropriate use. Class B biosolids are intended for bulk application on large tracts of land, such as farm fields and woodlands.
Class A biosolids are often processed into pellets and sold in small quantities for residential use in gardens and on lawns. Biosolids can also be composted with wood chips and turned into a Class A soil amendment for home use on gardens, shrubs and lawns. Both Class A and Class B biosolids are treated and certified to meet EPA standards for pathogens and other elements.
During treatment at the wastewater treatment plant, bacteria and other tiny organisms break sewage down into simpler, harmless organic matter, which contains essential plant nutrients. While some cities still dispose of the remaining solids — called sludge — into landfills, this is an expensive and wasteful process.
The majority of treatment plants process the sludge into biosolids to meet EPA standards for farmland application. This environmentally responsible approach saves valuable landfill space and helps restore and enhance the nation’s dwindling farmland.
The Newcomb brothers, along with a number of other highly successful Virginia farmers, use sludge that is applied using a standard agricultural box spreader that evenly distributes the material according to a scientifically determined rate, based on soil samples, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Soil Survey and the Department of Conservation and Recreation nutrient recommendations for the crop to be grown.
A Global Positioning System (GPS) device is also used to precisely identify the location of each application site. Biosolids can be applied to pastures, hay fields and corn and soybean fields that will produce animal feed and to land that will grow processed food crops, such as corn, soybeans or small grains.
“We get a lot of phosphorous and a lot of nitrogen from the sludge and it saves us some money, compared to using conventional fertilizers,” Robbie says. So far, it looks good — they put out about 25 tons per acre on irrigated land and a smaller amount on non-irrigated land.”
On irrigated land, using the sludge they hope to harvest about 150 bushels per acre and on soybeans 60-65 bushels per acre. While they would like to irrigate all their crops, having small tracts of land spread over three counties doesn’t always allow for irrigation.
The Newcomb brothers say several years of doing strip tests on fungicides proved to them that using these materials on soybeans as a routine treatment pays off. They use a number of fungicides, including Headline, Quadris, Domark — whichever is least expensive and fits into their resistance management program, Clay says.
“I usually apply fungicides on beans as a one-time application. We do that on full-season and double-crop beans. I typically burn down the weeds prior to planting, then we apply Pursuit at planting,” Clay adds.
The Newcomb brothers have a simple division of responsibilities — each does what he does best and what he likes.
Clay, the older brother, likes spraying, so he manages most of the pesticide applications. Robbie prefers to drive a tractor and does most of the planting. The business side of farming is the toughest — it takes both of them to figure out strategies on how to stay ahead of the game with input cost versus commodity prices.
They have some on-site storage that allows them to hold wheat during harvest, then sell it as quickly as they can. Being able to hold corn in storage is the biggest advantage of having on-farm storage, the Newcombs say.
Marketing is a lot like rolling the dice — sometimes you win and sometimes you lose, they joke, but typically they have been very successful marketing their grain crops, and if there is a secret, it is being able to hold a good percentage of their crops in storage.
They are growing 250 acres of barley in 2009 in hopes that the new Osage Bio ethanol plant in nearby Hopewell, Va., will provide a good market. “The key Robbie says is what they will pay us for our barley. As of late May it was trading for about $2.50 a bushel,” he says.
If barley becomes an economically feasible crop to grow, the Newcomb brothers agree it will be a good thing for area grain growers. In addition to having more marketing options, barley, they say offers some good rotation opportunities.
In addition to their row crops, they raise Angus-crossed cattle. They grow their own feed for the cattle, which helps with cash flow during some periods of the year.
With the next generation of Newcomb farmers coming along now, staying ahead of the game is critical for Robbie and Clay Newcomb. With the life-long experience they have had growing up on the farm and remembering the lessons they learned from their late father, the odds are good for success.
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