It’s May 5 and the White River Refuge is decked out in green with water swirling over access roads. Spring rains have finally slowed allowing Delta farmers to hit fields hard, prepping and planting in earnest.
Hard on the western edge of the refuge, just outside St. Charles, Ark., Heath Whitmore climbs out of his tractor. The field is bristling with corn stalks and plant matter. “Only two more fields and we are done planting!” Whitmore kicks at a desiccated corn cob – one of a multitude – alongside his planter. “It’s ugly, right?” he says, smiling.
Brad Koen, BASF consultant, nods in agreement. “No argument here. This sure is farming ugly -- but y’all have made it work.”
In fact, during a time of depressed crop prices and fretting over bottom lines, the Whitmores’ minimum-till operation is downright attractive. How have they made it a success?
“In 2000, when I got out of school, Dad wanted to try stale-seedbedded rice,” says Heath, who farms with his father, Kirk. “What we were doing was, in the fall, we’d come behind our beans and smooth the ground down. We bought a 750 Deere no-till drill and, the next spring, we’d run a burndown and plant straight into that.
“We were hoping to harvest near the same yield and that the ground would mellow out. Well, over the next few years, we actually saw a bit of a bump in yields.”
At that time, the Whitmores had about 150 to 200 acres of dryland acres in wheat. “A few farmers around here were trying some of the early varieties of soybeans – the early Group 4s and late 3s. One fall, I wasn’t able to get the wheat planted and we decided to give the field a burndown treatment and then give some late 3s a go. Those were planted no-till the last week of March, were never watered and they still cut 45 to 50 bushels.”
The next year, the duo tried the same thing in another field. “That field is a good one and was irrigated. Since then, we’ve just kept at this minimum-till approach, figuring things out. Honestly, it hasn’t always worked but when it didn’t we’d step back and try to iron out the problems we encountered.”
The right equipment
One thing the Whitmores found out very quickly is that in order to minimum-till on many acres you must have the right equipment.
“You can’t no-till with a regular planter,” says Heath. “But at the same time it doesn’t take anything fancy. We run a Great Plains twin-row planter, 25 series, which allows multiple configurations. There are coulters on the front and a set of twin disks. Everything is bit bigger and that, I think, makes you turn a bit slower. With no-till, we have to go a tad slower when we plant to allow the equipment to work properly. Without that it’s bouncing over stubble and wants to skip a little. You’ve got to take your time.”
The Whitmores plant twin rows on 40-inch beds. “We feel that this wide bed is important for our operation in order to maintain enough bed from one year to the next,” says Kirk.
“For when we do have to work the ground, we bought a vertical tillage rig that has zero pitch on the blades and zero angle on the gang,” says Heath. “So, it has coulters spaced three-inch apart and it slides and slices. If there are ruts in the field, you can run it down the row and it’ll fill them in and churn the ground up.”
Koen picks up the narrative: “When we first began looking at minimum-till rice, one of the main considerations was the soils here will crust over. When it dries, it’ll crust over like concrete. Then, we’d have to flush the rice to have enough moisture to get it up out of the ground.”
However, by prepping the ground in the fall and coming back in the spring with a burndown and then planting, the seed was actually being placed into moist soil. That meant the Whitmores didn’t have to worry about the crusting. Not only were they saving money by not making passes across the field but they were getting better stands.
“This minimum-till system the Whitmores are using really holds moisture well,” says Koen. “Just today I’ve had five calls from farmers saying, ‘man, I’m running out of moisture on my bean beds. You think I should keep planting or wait and see what the rains might do this weekend?’”
The Whitmores don’t run out of moisture, says Koen. “Look at the soil that Heath is planting into. I can’t remember them having trouble with that except in rare instances behind wheat.
“Heath and Kirk are not scared to try new things. That’s just a fact. Every year I bring something to them that I want to try and they’re willing to try. This is almost like a test farm to me in that sense.”
No grand ambitions
Starting out with the system, the father and son team had no grand ambitions. “We stumbled into this – that’s the truth,” says Heath. “We have nothing but row-watered acreage. Now, every step we do in the process leads back to how it’ll be planted and watered and that begins in the fall. Some folks say ‘the season begins at planting.’ When preparing for the next season we’re focused on what’s being done at harvest. When we begin cutting, the spreader on our combine has to be set so we’re not dumping a windrow of stubble. You have to spread that stubble in an even layer.
“When our grain carts are running, we can’t turn the combine around in the middle of the field. If it’s the slightest bit damp, it’ll cut rows in half and hinder irrigation and drainage the next season. That leads to a wet spot and yield dips. So, we have to run the combine to the row end.”
That kind of mind-set is “absolutely necessary and that took a while for us to really grasp,” says Heath. “Those are the type of considerations we ran into.
“When we first began stale seedbed Valor wasn’t even out. The first couple of years, it occasionally looked like were planting into a front yard – poa annua and winter vegetation would absolutely cover these fields. Roundup was about all there was and it took forever to kill it. We were having a tough time getting the ground dry enough in the spring. That was putting us several days behind conventional till operations.”
Now, though, the Whitmores fall burndown program has evolved. “On the White River Prairie, we didn’t see (glyphosate) resistance for a while after it sprang up in other areas where they’d been planting Roundup Ready varieties for so long. That changed eight to 10 years ago when resistant marestail began creeping in. The first couple of years, we didn’t have much trouble controlling it. Then, one year it just exploded and we couldn’t kill it with 2,4-D.
“About that time, Sharpen came in and we began using that. What we’ve done the last couple of years is, around the first of November, we run about an ounce of Valor and an ounce of Sharpen with Roundup as a burndown. We let that carry over. This field was treated with that combination and wasn’t touched until last night. In front of our soybeans, we’re putting out two types of residuals. The combination of Verdict and Zidua has been solid for us.”
If not for the recent rains, this field would have been planted two or three weeks ago. “A lot of this vegetation has jumped up with the rainy spring we’ve had and the inability to get in the field. But with Verdict in the tank, we feel confident we can clean the field up prior to emergence.”
“The thing with resistant marestail showing up here first is it helped us stay in front of resistant pigweeds,” says Kirk. “We were ready when the pigweeds arrived. We’d already seen what the marestail would do and so we’d studied up and were vigilant on the pigweeds before they really became a problem.”
What is the Whitmores’ typical rotation?
“If corn prices would come back, we’d love to go corn/beans. And some of our acreage does have that rotation. This is the first year we’ve put milo into the mix.”
Koen says “You can’t believe the milo that is being planted. I bet we’ll have four times the milo that we normally do. That’s due to milo prices being better than normal – a positive basis -- and corn prices being down. Milo is an outstanding rotational crop.”
Area farmers are fortunate, says Koen, because Bunge has a facility here on the White River. “The Whitmores have said it’s almost like having their own grain tank four miles away. So, it makes it easier to add milo to the mix.”
What about the workload since going to minimum-till?
Kirk reckons it has been cut by 60 percent. “We haven’t put a pin in a disk or float for two years. They’re just sitting on the lot. Ground preparation takes up a lot more time than planting. This year, I haven’t been on any equipment other than a planter and we only lack a couple of fields being done.”
Asked how many tanks of fuel it used to take to finish out a conventional season, Kirk says it’s hard to estimate. “But think about it: all the ground prep requires 12 to 15 gallons of fuel per hour. We’re probably burning 8 or 9 gallons planting. Well, when running a conventional system we were making an average of four to six trips across the field before planting. So, our fuel needs are now less than 20 percent of what they once were.
“When we began this season, we had about 5,000 gallons in a 10,000-gallon tank. We’ve planted well over 1,000 acres and that tank is still holding about 4,000 gallons.”
The only tillage the pair does is with a Brandt hipper/chopper. “It has a chopper basket in it that looks like a do-all that used to be run over cotton stalks,” says Heath. “That’s what makes the rows in this min-till system.
“A lot of times, if we mess a field up too much, it’s damp in the fall when we cut or the beds just melt down, we’ll run the hipper/chopper. The plows dip about two inches deep. All I’m trying to do is clean the middles out where it’ll drain and throw just a minimal amount of soil up onto the bed. We do that only when necessary – maybe every three years. We like to do it in front corn because that allows us to put our fertilizer out and it gets into the bed well. This year, though, half our corn is strictly no-till.”
What’s interesting, says Kirk, is the operation’s soils are “just getting softer and softer. They’re mellowing right out. Early on, we didn’t think that would be the case. It turns out if you just leave it alone, it helps. Those are the kind of benefits we just fell into.
“We were worried about trying this no-till. There’s no one around here that’s done much of this. This area has soils that can be worked and crops come up looking sweet, like a garden. Why mess with a good thing?
“But times change and a lot of what we’re learning by doing this is trial and error. We’ve made mistakes and had to tweak things.”
No shorting inputs
Back in 2000, when Koen first began working with the Whitmores, times were “kind of tough in farming. Folks were looking at ways to cut costs. The Whitmores didn’t want to cut inputs but had to figure out some way to save money other ways. Well, this type of farming has meant they’ve cut costs not just through labor but by slashing equipment expenses – repairs and the rest.”
Queried on inputs, Kirk says nothing that can lead to a yield benefit is shorted. “That’s key to keeping our yields rising.”
And he doesn’t care how homely the fields may look at planting time. “At this point, I don’t care how rough things look early-season. In a few weeks, there’s no way you’ll be able to tell whether this field was no-tilled or conventional or anything else. By then, who cares? All that matters is yield.
“But if you don’t put out ample fertilizer, that will show up – if not this year, then next. So, if we don’t put out an input that’ll make us money, it’ll cost us down the road.”
Koen agrees. “That is so right. Who cares if the field is unattractive during planting season? They’re making yields just as good, or better, than anyone else around.”
“No doubt, if I was looking at this field from a conventional-farming standpoint this is ugly, really ugly,” says Heath. “But now that we’ve figured out how to make this work, let me tell you: I think this field is absolutely beautiful! I know what the field will do and what it means for this operation and that’s wonderful.”
Koen points out that for an average farm at today’s price, it takes 50 bushels of soybeans to break even. “That’s to break even! And who’s in this business to break even? Nobody. So, we’ve got to figure out ways to make 70 and 80 bushel beans.”
Back on inputs, Koen says the fungicides used on soybeans are good as preventatives. “We use fungicides almost like a human takes vitamins to stay healthy. There isn’t such a thing, at least in my mind, as a curative fungicide. Once you have a disease in a field and you lose leaf area, the leaf isn’t coming back. We’ve found that the only way to get a good yield response to fungicides is to get them out about R3 at the beginning of pod development.
“If we can keep a plant healthy from blooming to maturity, that’s success. That’s when yield is made.”
The Whitmores haven’t planted an acre in years without applying a fungicide. “We use them on every crop,” says Kirk.
“We irrigate each field from four to six times. That means a terrible humidity problem under our crops in July and August. That sets us up for disease and that’s why we use the fungicides.”
“Typically, we’ve been running one shot of Priaxor as our fungicide choice,” says Koen. “You get about three weeks’ worth of residual. There’s about a six week window between R3 and maturity. So, we’ve been focused on protecting the first half of that window.
“We have tried overlapping our fungicides over the last couple of years, and we have had some great success. This approach may not work in all situations, but on the better producing bean fields it’s something to consider. What we’ve noticed is when you run two shots Priaxor at R3 and R5, the beans stay green. That allows the bean to take on all the weight it can – and that can make a big difference.
“Did you know it takes 2 milligrams per bean to make an additional bushel per acre? Two milligrams is minute. Over the last couple of years in our Grow for the Green (yield contest) fields, we’ve consistently picked up 12 to 14 bushels per acre where we’ve used two shots of fungicide.”
Last year, the Whitmores cut a Grow for the Green plot that yielded almost 96 bushels per acre. That field had two applications of Priaxor.
“The whole field, 75 acres, averaged over 87 bushels,” says Kirk. “And it started out looking like this one – 100 percent no-till. We had 600 acres of completely no-till soybeans in 2014 and cut the best crop we’ve ever had.
“Of course, Mother Nature had a lot to do with that. Everyone would agree we had a great summer weather-wise. Let me tell you, if we have a summer like we did last year, we may do a little extra to our beans. If it gets to mid-July and we have another run of cool temperatures, we’ll think hard about protecting that yield potential with some extra inputs.”
Have the Whitmores had any inquiries about their minimum-till operation?
“We’ve had a few folks call us,” says Kirk. “We haven’t pushed it hard. This is really the first time we’ve talked about this, the first time I’ve felt comfortable enough.
“People drive by, of course, and see it and it may intrigue them a bit. But it is a drastic change and you have to remember that there are many farmers in the Delta not far from retirement. I doubt many of them are up to make major changes to no-till without someone younger to help. And without Heath I wouldn’t be doing this. You have to have some fresh eyes when approaching something like this.
“I’ve really had to shift my thinking. Soybeans can’t be shoved to the back anymore. You have to treat them as a primary crop.”
You can dabble in no-till a little “but you really need to commit,” says Heath. “Taking rice out of our rotation allowed us to be 100 percent row-crop and able to manage the farm like this.”
Kirk is excited about the potential benefits to the operation’s soils “down the line in 10 or 15 years. I bet we’ve cut our soil erosion by 80 percent.”
Koen has soil samples from the farm for the last 14 or 15 years. “It’s going to be interesting to compare those and see what’s happening with the organic matter. Last year, in the high-yield soybean field, we ran some nitrogen at R3. We ran 45 units nitrogen by way of urea.”
At the same time, BASF agronomists did nine different tests around the country doing the same thing. “Out of those nine, we found an 8-bushel yield increase on three locations. On six of the locations, there was slightly over a one-bushel increase. When we looked at all the factors, the 8-bushel bump came where the organic matter was less than 2.5 percent. Where the organic matter was greater than 2.5 percent we saw the one-bushel bump.”
Around here, soil organic matter is very low. “Our soils here are really just a good growing medium and you really have to put the fertilizer to it,” says Koen.
“A soybean plant can only produce about 60 to 70 percent of the nitrogen it needs. The rest has to come from the soil. Well, we grew 60-bushel soybeans around here forever. It is almost like we had hit a brick wall. I think the addition of nitrogen on these low organic soils with the addition of the fungicide applications have opened up a new door for higher yields. I’d like to see if doing this with no-till means the organic matter in this soil is trending upwards. It would be great to get up over 2 percent.”
One new thing the Whitmores are trying this year is a cover crop. “We’re starting small with about 50 acres. It was a blend of five seeds: crimson clover, tillage radishes, triticale, jerry oats and cereal rye,” says Heath. “The seed came pre-blended and treated.
“We planted corn and milo behind it. If it works, we’ll implement it on more of our land. We hope it helps provide some nitrogen, help with soil erosion. It cut out our burndown in the fall – we just burned the corn stubble and planted into that. Then, this spring, we killed it off and planted corn.”
Kirk points out another reason to consider cover crops: government programs. “With CSP and the like, one of the things that provides many points in your favor is if you’re willing to plant cover crops.”