For many years, farmland around Griffithville, Ark., was host to rice crops. While the crop may have filled producers’ pockets, it did few favors for the prairie soils common in the area, adding little organic matter.
As rice prices dipped in recent years, the Carl Beavers and his son, Jonathan, decided to take a different path. A corn-soybean rotation combined with a bedding system that requires as few passes as possible has proven that decision was a wise one. Soybean yields of 70-plus bushels are possible.
“Half of our acres are upland and half gumbo,” says Carl in mid-July. “It was too wet to plant the gumbo soil this year.
“These thin prairie soils don’t hold much moisture and have low organic matter. That’s why we’ve gone to a corn-soybean rotation to get all the corn cobs and stalk into the beds. Essentially, we want a mulch. All the old roots become cavities that hold moisture.”
To plant and prep, the duo use a hipper in the fall and then come in and re-hip it again. Then they bed it, roll it and plant on top.
“We’re all in soybeans this year,” says Carl. “We had 500 acres of corn three years ago. We haven’t planted any rice in four years. The numbers just haven’t worked for us. And, again, we need to build up these soils.”
The Beaverses considered grain sorghum this year. “Looked very hard at it. But we just like the soybeans. The sugarcane aphid scared us a little, as well.”
Farming, says Carl, is a constant learning process. “Mother Nature has worked against us so much in the recent years that we’ve learned you have to farm the majority, not the minority. If you’re worried about a low spot in the field and tackle that instead of planting, she can come in and keep you from planting for a month. It’s better to use the window you have to deal with the big issues.”
Jonathan says as soon as the crop is harvested and the stalks are dry enough, they start hipping. “If the ground is silted in enough, I’ll hip it twice. Then, we just leave it for the winter and come back in the spring. Some of the fields I hipped twice only required a roller bedder to clean the bottom of the furrows and flatten the tops and plant right on top. Some of the fields I only hipped once in the fall — where drainage would help during the winter — and came back in the spring and hipped it once, then used the roller bedder. So, we make three passes, plant, and are done.
“Mainly, we want to leave all the crop residue out to allow it to rot and deteriorate slowly.”
Folks in the neighborhood have been watching. “There have been some folks that notice how wooly things look,” says Carl. “Last year, we hipped up one field that was a jungle.”
Jonathan agrees. “I’ve worked fields that were just covered with grass. If there’s a rain coming, that helps the system a lot. When you put the tall grass into the soil, it needs to have a sealing rain on top. That debris in the soil then holds the moisture.
“We started this just to try it out. We read minimum-till articles about cotton ground and farmers that don’t even touch the fields in the fall. Then, come spring, they hip, roller bed and then plant. They hardly work the soil.”
This year, Jonathan was able to plant 500 acres of the pair’s upper ground April 28 to May 2. In ideal conditions, the goal is to plant a late Group 4 in April. Planting in May means a 3.9 to 4.2 maturity soybean to bloom in mid-June.
“What we’re aiming for is the crop to be blooming on the longest day of the summer, June 21. This allows the beans to be in reproductive growth stage when there is the greatest solar energy for the beans to capture. So, we’re looking at harvesting the second week of September. It would be August if we’d been able to plant on time.
“I wish I’d have been planting closer to April 15, but the rains prevented that. As soon as it dried down enough, I was on the tractor planting. It was just so wet. If there hadn’t been that four-day window, I wouldn’t have been able to plant the acreage at one time. It rained for three weeks after planting.”
This year, as wet as it’s been, is actually better than last. “We didn’t get planted last year until June.”
Some of the beds are 12 to 14 inches tall. “That meant the soybeans weren’t hurt at all by having all that water,” says Jonathan. “The beds kept them above the flood.”
“You could have 8 to 10 inches of standing water at the end of the fields and the beans were fine on high ground,” adds Carl.
The type of soil the men work means some big problems with hardpan.
“We’re always five days from a drought,” says Jonathan. “We will water through a rain. If I’m watering a field and it rains an inch, I don’t shut off the pump. If it’s running out the bottom like I’ve just watered it with polypipe, then I’ll shut the pump down. Otherwise, we just consider the rain a bonus for the crop. That’s the approach you have to take.
“I use the PHAUCET system and fine-tune it. Some fields I cut into three quadrants. Some (polypipe) holes are very big and some are small. It depends on the row length, the pressure at the end of the polypipe and other things.”
PHAUCET dictates what Jonathan does, but he still watches fields very closely. “I count the rows. Then, as the water gets towards the field bottom, I write down which rows water the quickest. For the rows that don’t get the water to the bottoms quickly, I’ll say, ‘Okay, row 37, or 67, didn’t get water all the way down.’ Then, I come back to the polypipe and find the right row and poke another small hole and watch the water again to see if that did the job. Sometimes it takes another hole. When I water the second time, it stays pretty consistent.”
The Beavers have drop pipes on all their fields, which are all precision-leveled. “When we first began this, we’d put the drop pipes in, and let the water build up at the end,” says Carl.
“We found something out,” says Jonathan. “Backing the water up seemed like a good idea, but small beans can be scalded. Another thing is, my row-counting didn’t work. How would you know if row 67 never made it to the bottom of the field? You’d think the field has been watered but going out in the field, there’d be a bunch of area in the middle that is dry. It gave us a false sense of security.”
Another discovery: when using well water, the polypipe holes stay open. “When we use surface water, though — and we have tail-water recovery ditches and reservoirs — debris shows up after the second or third watering,” says Carl. “After using surface water for the second time, it’s very important to go back and check every hole for debris. That’s the negative part of using surface water.”
What about weed control?
“We keep the fields as clean as possible,” says Carl. “Pigweeds require that — almost everybody in this area has had to deal with them. It’s to the point where we’ll do a little weed-pulling every now and then.”
“This year, I may have pulled 10 pigweeds,” says Jonathan. “Usually, we’ll have pulled 100 to 200. If one pokes up in the middle of the field, I’ll walk out and get it.”
“We’re not developing resistance because we’re applying more than just one or two products,” says Carl. “We don’t want to use the strongest chemicals unless it’s absolutely necessary.”
In their corn, Dual plus atrazine pre-emerge followed by atrazine early post “keeps the crop very clean,” according to William Johnson, Pioneer agronomist. “In this program, Palmer pigweeds aren’t exposed to a PPO herbicide mode of action.
“We typically burn down in early February. We normally use Leadoff and glyphosate as our burndown program, especially if we know the field in going into corn. Since we were considering grain sorghum this year, we use glyphosate and dicamba due to rotation restrictions associated with Leadoff. We applied Dual plus Canopy DF right behind the planter as our pre-emerge herbicide program. Ten to 14 days after the beans emerge, we apply glyphosate and Reflex. Reflex is difficult to find and we are starting to move to Flexstar.
“I don’t like the burn associated with Flexstar but it is currently the most effective herbicide for contact and residual control of palmer pigweed. We don’t use Prefix which contains Dual and Flexstar. The Dual component applied post under wet environmental conditions can stunt the beans and we want the beans growing as fast as possible to set as many fruiting nodes as possible by June 21.
“These herbicide programs rely on multiple modes of action and only while growing a soybean crop is a PPO used. The PPO mode of action is the only one left that Palmer hasn’t developed resistance to.”
The Beavers try to fertilize right before a rain.
“We don’t fertilize until after the crop is up and growing,” says Jonathan. “We’re watching the weather reports and bring in an application when rain is forecast.”
“We soil sample and maintain our soil pH between 6 and 7. Since we’re in a bean rotation this year, we are applying 150 pounds per acre of potash. Our goal is to maintain our soil test K at or above 300 pounds per acre. With corn in the rotation, we have built our soil test P and typically do not need any P for the beans. On these prairie soils, sulfur has become a needed nutrient and we apply 100 pound per acre of ammonium sulfate with our potash. Our goal is to keep our sulfate-sulfur levels above 30 pounds per acre.”
“We hire Tony Holder, with Helena, to bring in a rig that air-flows and runs on rows — 60 inches,” says Carl. “He’s only fertilizing where we have soybeans.
“We fly on ammonium sulfate later to supplement nitrogen and sulfur on fields with high yield potential, when the beans turn from vegetative to reproductive. We’re watching the fellows in southeast Arkansas with those great yields and try to copy them a little.
“We’ll also apply a fungicide and piggyback an insecticide. Of course, that’s if the yield potential is there. We’re nearing the stage when we’ll apply Beseige and Quadris at R2 to control insects and foliar diseases.”