Wheat, no-till mellow land for Virginia grower

Dean Stallings is a sixth generation farmer, and a good one. Always looking for ways to cut costs and boost profits, he was the first in his area of southeastern Virginia to go to a no-till system for wheat, soybeans and cotton.

“I started with no-till five years ago, and since that time, several of my farming neighbors have gone to similar systems,” Stallings says. “In technical terms, I'm not sure what no-till does, but it just seems to mellow the land. It seems to hold moisture better and make better use of the fertilizer we put down,” he explains.

Stallings who farms 1,000 acres of cotton, soybeans, and wheat near Smithfield, Va., says no-till also saves him in fuel and labor costs. Competent, reliable farm labor, in particular, is tough to find, and no till reduces labor needs. With a near even break of 550 acres of cotton 450 acres of soybean-wheat double-cropped, his operation is ideally suited for a three-way rotation with cotton.

Isle of Wight County Virginia Extension Agent Glenn Rountree says growers in his area, including Stallings, adopted no-tillage or reduced tillage systems for three primary reasons:

  • Save fuel.

  • Better moisture retention.

  • Government programs that offset yield losses to the change over from conventional to conservation tillage.

“We started conservation-tillage with a KMC strip-tillage rig with cotton. We came back to plant behind the KMC rig. Then two years ago, we hooked the planter and strip-tillage rig together,” Stallings says.

“We keep a mower right behind the picker to chop the cotton stalks. Typically, we finish picking cotton by the first of November. Then, we start planting wheat two to three weeks after we pick cotton. Just before we plant wheat, we go in with 30-70-120 fertilizer and spread it over the field. We combine a quart of glyphosate to take out weeds, primarily Italian ryegrass. If we can get weeds under control in the fall, it is less of a problem to deal with in the spring, he says.

We harvested some wheat this year that is around 90 bushels per acre. Back when we provided a perfect seedbed and ran too many pieces of equipment over the land, we never got yields close to 100 bushels per acre. One of our neighbors, who uses the same system we use has a yield monitor on a new machine, and we looked at his yield going across a wheat field and it was consistently hitting 100-105 bushels per acre, Stallings says.

“No-till wheat works well for us. We can mow it, fertilize it, spray it to kill weeds, plant it and pretty much be done with it until spring. Used to be we grew corn, and we disked the land, plowed it, disked it again, ran a finishing piece over it, and planted wheat with a drill,” he concludes.

In all non-irrigated agricultural production, including wheat, in southeastern Virginia, the most limiting crop production factor is water, according to Rountree. Conservation-tillage programs allow farmers to somewhat manage their soil moisture by using the practices of reduced-tillage or no-tillage systems, he says.

Stallings still uses a grain drill that goes back to the old days, but everything else is different in no-till wheat. Glyphosate-based herbicide systems brought on by Roundup Ready cotton and soybean varieties have helped clean up weeds, making no-till wheat more cost efficient and easier to manage.

In the spring, he goes over the wheat three times, beginning in February with the first shot of nitrogen. He comes back with a second shot at about Growth Stage 8. Then, he comes back with Tilt and a pyrethroid insecticide.

As soon as wheat is harvested, he plants soybeans directly into the stubble. It's a good rotation, Stallings says. On some farms, he goes cotton, cotton, wheat, beans, which has worked fairly well. In 1997, he designed a spreadsheet to keep up with what is planted in what field in which year.

The resistance problems with glyphosate will cause us to take a close look at our no-till wheat, but it has been too good to abandon it. I don't know what we can use for burndown, but if we get resistance in weeds in our cotton, we will have to look at paraquat or some other burndown.

If we use paraquat, we will have to add something for grasses, because it doesn't do as good a job as glyphosate — that's another chemical cost and another trip across the field. So, the question will become, how much can we spend to grow wheat?” he says.

“We used to farm about 2,000 acres of land all around Smithfield, but the lack of labor forced us to cut back. We culled some of the least productive farms, or as my late father would say, “gave it back to the Indians,” Stallings jokes.

When we started growing cotton, it was apparent we couldn't afford all the equipment we needed. We were having our cotton custom picked and timing wasn't good, so a neighbor, Robbie Taylor, and I set up our own equipment company, and went in together to buy a picker, a modular, and spreader trucks.

We are in a partnership together on most of our cotton equipment. S & T Cotton is our company that only owns cotton equipment. Now, we pool our labor force and go from southwest to northeast across the county to get all our cotton planted. In the fall, we come back and harvest on the same pattern, rather than going back and forth from one farm to another, Stallings explains.

We establish a cost per acre for each piece of equipment. If I grow 602 acres of cotton and he grows 603 acres, he pays an acre more than me for that piece of equipment. We have about the same size operations, and it has worked out really well for both of us, Stallings adds.

Now, we have two cotton pickers and three module builders. Being able to plant, defoliate and pick on a straight line simplifies both operations and significantly reduces both labor and fuel costs, he says. This way you aren't running back and forth from one piece of equipment to the other, and it allow us to plant, defoliate and pick a lot of cotton in a day, he concludes.

The two Virginia farmers also go in together to buy farm supplies in bulk to save money. However, they do not market their crops together. S&T Company is strictly a pooling of equipment, supplies and labor, Stallings notes.

Rountree adds, with the margins on these row crops so low and the increased cost of such items as fertilizer, fuel and equipment, farmers can't afford to not be efficient. The new benchmark is quality. Everyone wants the best, highest quality product that can be delivered to the gin or elevator, he says.

The outlook for winter wheat looks good for 2007. Prices have remained good and wheat stocks remain low, compared to soybeans and other commodities. For farmers in the upper Southeast, no-till wheat provides a low-input, capital-generating crop that also builds soil nutrients for rotation crops.

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