Farm Talk

November 26, 2013

Productive and protected

Mark Parker

Parsons, Kansas — Making fragile farmland productive again while continuing to protect against erosion is a primary goal at Morris Farms near Deerfield, Mo.

The Morris family —Jerry and his wife, Janet, and their son Michael and his wife, Ashley — are counting on no-till and cover crops to bring CRP land back into production while still providing soil protection.

Jerry had been what he calls an “opportunistic no-tiller” since the 1990s, but five years ago he committed to the strategy which has enabled him to more safely farm his former CRP acres.

“There was a reason that land went into CRP,” he says. “A lot of the soils are fairly thin and we just couldn’t afford to lose any more soil. I wasn’t going to farm it if I couldn’t protect the soil and make it productive. My experiences with no-till convinced me we could make that happen.”

The process begins with a fall glyphosate application to eradicate cool season grass and weeds. CRP ground with warm-season grasses poses more challenges, Jerry says, because they have to wait well into spring for a burndown application.

Because of lower input costs, he prefers to make soybeans the first crop planted on CRP ground.

“We don’t expect the first crop coming out of the program to be great — although we have had some fairly good yields,” Morris says. “Soybeans give us a bigger window to eradicate warm-season grasses, and provide us with a quicker canopy.”

After conversion, CRP acres follow the farm’s normal rotation of corn and soybeans on the most productive ground, and soft red winter wheat, double-crop soybeans and corn on other fields.

Morris estimates soybeans in CRP fields take about a 20 percent yield hit, compared his other no-tilled soybeans, in the first year back in production.

Returning CRP acres isn’t just a matter of plant-and go, however. After more than 20 years, trees have grown up here and there. Michael uses a Marshall Tree Saw to clear them at ground level and treats the stumps. Fields are subsequently scouted and a hand-sprayer is used to control sprouts.

Morris, who participated in a University of Missouri CRP transitioning study several years ago, was also concerned about extra pest pressure.

The Morrises take steps to limit extra disease and pest problems by using a full-spectrum seed treatment.

On CRP conversion acres, they increase planted soybean populations to about 160,000 seeds per acre with the planter, 180,000 seeds per acre drilled.

The most important factor, however, is operating speed.

“The dead warm-season grass clumps can cause bounce if you go too fast,” Morris says. “We run the planter at 3½ mph and the drill under 5 mph. If you take your time, you can get a good stand.”

Most soils have maintained pH levels while out of crop production, but tend to be low on phosphorus and, in some cases, trace minerals, Morris says.

Morris Farms uses a build-and-maintain strategy that restores phosphorus to adequate levels within a few years. Dry fertilizer is broadcast ahead of planting to meet phosphorus and potassium soil test goals.

When the fields rotate to corn, the Morrises use a liquid-nitrogen program adopted recently to develop management zones and move away from fall-applied anhydrous.

About two-thirds of total nitrogen for corn is injected with the protectant Nzone added two weeks prior to planting. The balance is applied at V-4 or V-5. A 40-foot liquid applicator, set to 15-inch centers, provides more uniform coverage for the pre-plant application, and for sidedressing, shanks are pulled to convert the applicator to treat 12 rows on 30-inch centers. Tissue testing of corn also is used to establish fertility needs.

For soft red winter wheat, a handheld GreenSeeker unit helps evaluate the fertility program.

The pre-plant burndown includes glyphosate and 2,4-D and is followed by an in-season glyphosate treatment with the broadleaf herbicide Butyrac.

In 2011, Morris planted his first cover crops, sowing annual ryegrass and tillage radishes after corn harvest.

“It worked real well. Our best soybeans were on cover-cropped ground,” he says. “This year we’re planting a cover crop ahead of corn, but we’re changing the mix.”

This past spring, wet weather postponed termination of the cover crop until early May, about a month later than Morris would have preferred.

Concerned about the potential for annual ryegrass developing viable seed, the Morrises are going to a  mix of oats, hairy vetch, Austrian winter peas and crimson clover.

“Initially, we won’t reduce the amount of nitrogen we apply, but we’ll do some check strips to try to measure the nitrogen contribution of the cover-crop legumes,” he says. “Reducing purchased applied nitrogen is certainly something we hope to be able to do.”

For right now, though, they’re already seeing better weed control.

“Glyphosate-resistant waterhemp has exploded in our area in the past few years,” Morris says. “In the fields that were planted to a cover crop we noticed considerably less weed problems, including water hemp.”

This year, Morris added canola to the cropping mix, with the idea of canola serving both as an alternative to wheat and a cover crop with cash flow. In the past, he’s also grown non-GMO soybeans for tofu and natto markets.

Making the most of farmland is far from the only activity at the Morris Farm. Jerry and Michael are both volunteer firemen — Jerry for the Deerfield volunteer fire department and Michael — who is also an EMT — for both Deerfield and the Bronaugh departments.

The family is active in their church and Michael’s wife, Ashley, teaches at Christian Heights School in Fort Scott.

Among many activities, such as gardening, Janet has a brown egg layer flock and she sells eggs to several people in the area.

Her chickens, in fact, get royal treatment. A few years back when predators were taking their toll on the flock, the hen house was refurbished to the point that, Jerry says, “It’d take Seal Team Six to get into it now.”

The hen house is, in fact, one of the few around sporting a satellite dish on the roof.

Jerry, however, is quick to add that the satellite is actually for the inhabitants of the people house, not the hen house. £