Sunday, November 29, 2015

Cold and Miserable Weather



The last few days, we've had some pretty miserable weather with temperatures mostly around freezing and over three inches of rain with most of it coming as freezing rain.  It's the most miserable type of weather that there is with mud, rain, cold, ice, and grey skies. 

I'm hoping that it isn't going to be like this all winter long. 
 

Monday, November 23, 2015

Why Did Rich Disappear?

If anyone's been worrying themselves sick or losing sleep over what might have happened that caused Rich to disappear from the ether of the online world, I haven't posted anything in awhile mainly due to some overly frustrating computer problems.  I've almost reached my limit of patience dealing with dying monitors, bad hard drives, defective memory cards, and lost software verification codes, and I think my head would have exploded during that ordeal if my livelihood actually depended on anything computer related.

In addition to my computer woes, I've also been thinking hard about how to deal with lower wheat and grain sorghum prices, dropping cattle prices, drought, and how cover crops will fit into my future plans.  

Day to day, I change my mind slightly about what might need to change, but hopefully I can somehow sort through some of my options and ideas easier by writing a few blog posts on those subjects.  Who knows, some of those thoughts might even be halfway interesting to whoever reads them (although I'm not making any promises).

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Grain Sorghum Harvest

Grain sorghum stubble after combining
I've been relatively busy for the last month or so (or at least what passes for busy for me), which is why I haven't written much for awhile, although I've been thinking about a few things and pondering much so that might change.  

A few weeks ago, the grain sorghum planted in late-April was harvested and it was an awful disappointing harvest with yields even lower than I thought they would be.   One of the few bright spots in this year's attempt was that I'm pretty sure I know what caused the yields to be so much lower than expected, so now I think I know better what to do in the future whenever I'm trying to grow grain sorghum.

The main problem with this field was all the rain and cooler weather we had in May, which caused the grain sorghum to grow too slow after it first emerged, probably led to losing some of the nitrogen applied, and possibly also meant that the pre-emergent herbicide I used wasn't as effective at controlling volunteer sorghum-sudangrass.  I also shouldn't have let the sorghum-sudangrass that was planted last summer go the seed, if I had grazed or clipped it in late-summer when it started to reach maturity I don't think I would have had such a volunteer sorghum-sudangrass weed problem to deal with when the herbicide didn't control it completely. 

Despite those problems, test weights were pretty high (60 lb. per bushel) and the moisture levels were under the magical 14% number needed before the elevator will take a load of grain sorghum (until you've had to deal with a rejected truckload of wetter than you expected grain sorghum it's hard to understand how much of a relief being under that 14% number actually is).  Even though high test weights and optimum moisture levels mean there's no dockage when it comes time to sell, this field still didn't break even (in other words, more cash flowed out than flowed in), unless you include the value of the stubble.  If I was short on hay, I could easily bale enough hay from the stubble or get enough winter grazing to "make some money" off of this field. 

Hopefully, we'll get some rain sometime this month, I'll be drilling some wheat into this stubble, and  my wheat harvest will make up for the disappointing grain sorghum harvest.  Or, maybe a disappointing wheat harvest, drought, and low prices will be the final straw, and I'll start turning cropland into perennial pasture (I warned you that I've been thinking hard about a few things).

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Better Late Than Never 2015 Garden Cover Crop Update

Back in early May, I planted some alternating hills of corn and pinto beans along with some alternating hills of squashes, watermelons, and beans as a cover cropping experiment.  At the time, I said I was going to try to document the progress of this sort of cover crop planting and then I promptly forget about putting any updates at all on the blog (mainly because all of the photos I took along the way turned out all blurry for some reason).  But while looking through some photos, I happened to find a couple taken sometime in late-June that weren't all blurry which makes it a whole lot easier to show what was going on this summer with this cover crop.
approx. 6/28 - corn is just starting to tassel
Notice the hills of beans in between each hill of corn in the "row of corn"

This area of the garden was planted with the mixture of corn, beans, squash and watermelons right about the time most of the heavy rains we received this spring really started coming (rainfall totals were close to 30" in 30 days), but it seemed like the garden just sucked up every bit of rain and didn't really got waterlogged.  I don't know if it was a combination of the mountain of compost I spread years ago, the biochar, the residue from the cover crop mix, the earthworm activity, or a combination of all of the above, but it was pretty interesting the way the water just kept soaking into the ground.  Of course, I also could have just been seeing what I wanted to see, and the rain would have soaked in regardless of what I'd done in the garden.

I was looking forward to eating some watermelons out of this garden this year, but the pinto beans overwhelmed the watermelons and squash faster than I thought they would, and this was a home-grown watermelon-less summer for me and mine.  The next time I try something like this, I'll plant the  watermelons in their own row, with anything else planted at least 3-4 feet away so that I hopefully won't have to suffer through another watermelon-less summer.  
It's not really impressive corn, but there was some corn at the end of summer
I was a little surprised at how the corn grew when it was planted in hills like this.  My original thinking when I planted these alternating hills of corn and beans was that it would be more of a thicker cover crop type of planting with not very many ears of corn.  I also wasn't too sure about what sort of pollination I'd get, if any, with the the rows of corn spaced on six foot centers. But after the corn dried down I found a decent amount of harvestable ears of corn in almost every hill I'd planted. 

The corn was an open-pollinated corn variety (87 day Minnesota 13) that I first planted about 6-7 years ago and I've been saving seed from that first planting since then, so I made sure to save all the nice big ears of corn I could find. Growing OP corn and saving seed is interesting (at least to me) and I had grand plans for it on the farm back when I first started trying to grow it, so I might share a little about what I think about OP corn in the future.  

It's hard to define if this "experiment" was a success or failure (whatever that might mean to you or me), but I did come up with a few ideas about what I might try in the future both on the farm and in the garden.   

I've been thinking that I could easily use the planter to plant a cover crop of alternating rows of corn and beans (soybeans or cowpeas) simply by installing alternating corn and soybeans plates.  My planter uses a 30 cell corn plate and a 120 cell soybean plate so I could easily get the seed counts pretty close to optimum for both (i.e. the equivalent of 25K corn seeds and 100K soybean seeds per acre in each row).  A field of alternating rows of corn and cowpeas (or grain sorghum and cowpeas) would make a pretty interesting looking cover crop, and it's possible that I might even be able to harvest some corn, or I could just use the cattle to harvest it either during the summer or over the winter. 

Or, I might just mix some corn and beans together in each planter box and plant them as a mixture to duplicate the row of alternating hills of corn and beans.

It's interesting how ideas and plans can come from a handful of seeds, somewhere to plant them, a few photos, and a little head-scratching trying to figure out what you're seeing.  As always, so many ideas, but so little time and energy.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Baling Sorghum-sudangrass Hay

Looking east across a field of sorghum-sudangrass
There's nothing really exciting about baling some sorghum-sudangrass hay, but for some reason it seems like there are a lot of visits to the blog looking at the sorghum-sudangrass stuff, so for what its worth I thought I'd write about the sorghum-sudangrass I grew this summer. 

I planted about 36 acres of sorghum-sudangrass back on June 24, but instead of grazing it after it winter-killed like I did last year, I decided to bale it this summer.  One of the main reasons for baling hay instead of grazing it this winter is that I'm planning on planting grain sorghum next spring and I don't want to take the risk of ending up with a bunch of volunteer sorghum-sudnagrass in my grain sorghum field like I had this year.  Depending on how much rain we get, the sorghum-sudangrass should easily regrow to about 18-24 inches tall in the next few weeks or so, then I'll graze it off with the cattle and plant some wheat as a cover crop (at a much lower rate than I'd normally plant).  I'm thinking about planting a simple mix of wheat and turnips to feed the worms, cattle, and deer, but I don't know if that will happen until it happens.    

This summer, I planted a photoperiod-sensitive type of sorghum-sudangrass which means it won't start heading until the days get shorter than 12.5 hours in length. Because of that trait, it is supposed to make a higher quality hay because the maturity is delayed until sometime in September, which means it produces more leaves for a longer period of time instead of producing a head and getting more stemmy.  All of that also means that the seed costs more, and at this point, I'm a little undecided about if it grew any differently than "ordinary" sorghum-sudangrass would have grown and if the extra seed cost was worth it, although I'm leaning awful hard in the direction that ordinary, cheaper sorghum-sudangrass would work just as well for the way I grow and manage it.

From what I've seen,  photoperiod-sensitive sorghum-sudangrass would be better suited to a situation where it was being planted in late-April and was going to be cut for hay multiple times over the summer.   If you're going to double crop it after wheat or are planning to graze it in the summer, the ordinary, hopefully cheaper varieties of sorghum-sudangrass might be the better choice.
It's almost hard to see where you're driving in a field of 5-6 foot tall grass

The cropland around here is all terraced, so I usually try to break the fields up when I cut them for hay so that I'm not driving up and down the terraces on the ends as much (which probably doesn't make any sense at all to someone that doesn't know what I'm talking about).  In other words, instead of cutting one big square, I like to divide it up into two or more long rectangles.  All of that means that I have to dive into the middle of the field on that first pass across the field and almost drive blind while trying to follow a terrace. This year, I only had to deal with grass about 5-6 ft. tall, but I've cut some that was 8 ft. tall where I almost ran through the fence on the end when I didn't turn soon enough, it felt like driving in thick fog and almost going off of a cliff. So, if you plant some sorghum-sudangrass, don't wait too long to cut it, and I wouldn't plant it if you have a bunch of hidden obstacles in your field.

Besides that, baling sorghum-sudangrass is about the same as any other grass hay except that it's a little trickier getting it dry enough to bale while also trying to make sure it doesn't get too dry.  If anyone is thinking about baling sorghum-sudangrass, it's pretty important to cut it with something like a disc mower conditioner which crimps the stem so that it will dry down quick enough.  Even though I use a disc mower, most of the time it'll take at least an extra day or so for it to be dry enough to bale. 
Every time I've baled sorghum-sudangrass, the bales seem to come out much heavier and tighter than my other grass hay bales.  I've never weighed any bales, but I'd guess that my sorghum-sudangrass bales are at least 10-20% heavier, so there's even more hay out there than you'd think there was at first glance.

My bales also always seem to have a "shaggy" look to them when they are first baled, it always makes me get off of the tractor to double-check those first bales since it looks like the bales aren't being tied right or are loose, but I think it's just the nature of the grass and after the bales have set for a while they start to lose that "shaggy" look.  A net-wrapped bale wouldn't have that temporary shagginess, but since my baler gives me twine-wrapped bales, the shagginess doesn't bother me at all (besides that, I'm not a big fan of net-wrapped bales).  

That's about all I know about sorghum-sudangrass hay.  It grows quick, needs a little nitrogen but not too much, it can sometimes be difficult to get dry, it makes heavy bales, and my cattle seem to attack any bales of it that I feed them (there's almost no waste and they practically lick the ground clean to get every last bit of hay).    

Friday, August 28, 2015

Double Crop Grain Sorghum Update



Double crop grain sorghum at mid-bloom 60 days after planting - 8/23/15
On the same day that I planted my test plot of double crop soybeans, I also planted about six  acres of double crop grain sorghum. Unlike soybeans, I have a little experience growing grain sorghum both as a full season crop planted earlier in the year and as a double crop after wheat. Even though I've grown grain sorghum as a double crop before, it's usually been hit or miss at times when it comes to having a successful harvest which means I'm still trying to figure some things out about double cropping grain sorghum. It also doesn't make anything easier that it's almost like sorghum planted in April is close to being an entirely different crop than sorghum planted in June.

Usually my double crop grain sorghum has been a pretty low-input crop with low yield goals.  Most of the time, I've fertilized with about 30 lb. of N, hoping for something around 30-40 bu. per acre, although at $3.50/bu right now, I'm not making much money with those low yields anymore.  If everything goes perfect there's the possibility for much higher yields, and if everything goes wrong I tend to look at it like I grew a cover crop instead of a cash crop. In the past, I've either baled it, grazed it over the winter, or I've just disced it under and planted wheat.

Since I've looked at a double crop grain sorghum crop as a low-input crop, previously I've tended to plant a low seed rate that was in the 2.5 lb/acre range (~35,000 seeds/acre).  The theory is that sorghum will compensate for lower plant populations by tillering to fill any gaps in the row and because of that tendency yields have the possibility to be as high as a higher planting rate.  But whenever I've lowered seeding rates, even though it tillers the way it's supposed to, the heads on the tillers don't emerge and mature at the same time as the main heads and sometimes it's hard to get the moisture levels low enough for harvest until much later in the fall (because of a bunch of green heads on all those tillers).

With all that in mind, about the only new thing I tried with this plot is that I decided to plant about 68,000 seeds/acre (or ~5 lb/acre) in my double crop test plot this summer in an attempt to reduce or eliminate the amount of tillering.  Sorghum seed is relatively cheap, so doubling the amount of seed only ends up costing about $8 more per acre which is a heck of a bargain if I can harvest a couple of weeks earlier. At this point, it looks like the theory is working because there isn't much tillering that I can see.

We've had decent growing conditions this summer (adequate moisture and reasonably warm temperatures) which means that when we hit about 60 days since planting the field was at mid-bloom which was right on schedule, so if everything stays on track it should be close to being ready to harvest in about 40 more days (sometime in early to mid October).

This summer it's become more obvious to me that good growing conditions in the summer are one of the main keys to successfully growing double cropped grain sorghum.  I only have about 100 days between about July and the first freeze in the fall (mid-October to early November) for the crop to grow, mature, and dry for harvest.  If it gets too dry, too hot, or a freeze comes earlier in the fall, the yields suffer and it's tough to make it worth growing double crop sorghum.  In the past, with my double crop sorghum, I've had two mediocre grain harvests, one complete failure due to drought, and two crops that I baled for hay (and it wasn't much hay).  With that track record, I'm starting to wonder why I'm even thinking about planting any more.

I always knew it was sort of a gamble to try growing double crop grain sorghum, but after looking closer at what it takes to successfully grow a crop this summer (almost everything has to be perfect), and also factoring in the lower price being paid for grain sorghum lately, it seems more and more like I'm gambling with some pretty long odds.  

At this point I'm not sure where or if double cropped grain sorghum fits into the farm.  I might be better off treating it as primarily as a cover crop with the off chance of a grain harvest if everything goes perfect.  That would mean dropping my planting rate into the 1.5 lb. per acre range to encourage more tillering, fertilizing even less or not at all, and being prepared to graze it, mow it, or bale it in time to follow it with something like wheat. Of course, I might be better off to just use the planter to plant about 5 lb. of sorghum-sudangrass as a cover crop, and forget about planting grain sorghum on the hope that I might somehow get a grain harvest.

As soon as I get this test plot harvested this fall, I'll know a little bit more about whether I'll double crop grain sorghum in the future.  It's entirely possible that I might be singing an entirely different tune in a couple months and telling the world that double cropped grain sorghum is the best crop to grow around here.  Stay tuned. 

Monday, August 24, 2015

Double Crop Soybeans - August 23


The better part of my soybeans, I'm not gonna show the bad parts

There's actually some pods on the plants

Marestail in the soybeans

Back on June 25 after I'd finished harvesting the wheat, I planted about four acres of soybeans as a small test to see if it was possible to double-crop soybeans around here.  There's nothing really interesting or a whole lot to write about a little test plot of soybeans, but I'll write about them anyway so I'll better remember how they grew.

To my inexperienced eye,  they seem to be growing okay, sort of so-so, not bad but they could be better. Right now (August 23) about 60 days after I planted them they are about 18-20 inches tall and seem to be growing taller and wider every day.  They are far from completely canopying and filling in the rows, but that might be partly because they're planted on 30 inch rows.  They're flowering and setting pods. 

Since I have almost no firsthand experience with growing soybeans, I'm not sure if any of that is good or bad, or ahead or behind of schedule.  It's been a while since I haven't been exactly sure about what I'm looking at and whether I should be satisfied or disappointed with my efforts, but right now I think they are growing halfway decently, they could probably be better, but I don't really know for sure.

One thing I have figured out is that weed control is pretty important when growing soybeans.  I knew I was going to have problems with marestail, and I purposely planted my test plot in this part of the field because it has had some problems with marestail in the past and I wanted to see how big of a problem it would be when growing soybeans.  I quickly reached the conclusion that I definitely don't want any marestail in my soybeans, and that paying close attention to marestail control will be one of the most important parts of growing soybeans.

In the future, getting rid of marestail will be better done before planting soybeans, but I reached the point where I couldn't stand all that marestail out in my soybeans anymore, so I've been walking the field trying to get rid of all the  marestail off and on for about a week or so.  I'm not done with my weed control yet, but I'm closer to being finished than I was when I started. Walking four acres to control weeds is barely doable, but a hundred acres seems like it would be almost a herculean task.

I was expecting to see a significant amount of deer damage especially since this is the only soybeans for miles around, but so far I haven't seen much damage at all which is a little surprising.  It might be due to the wetter summer we've had, the grain sorghum field might be more attractive, or they might show up later in the fall, otherwise I'd think there would be more deer activity in the soybeans.

Stay tuned for action-packed updates about harvesting soybeans this fall, or how I feel like shooting a bunch of deer because they wiped out my soybean field before I could even harvest it, or some combination of harvesting soybeans and deer shooting.      

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Hay Baling Battles



Finally done with this field of hay
It's been an exhausting week or so baling about 65 acres of crabgrass hay and I've never been so glad to be finished with a field of hay as this one.  There's been breakdown after breakdown, starting with the A/C in the tractor refusing to work which we fixed by taking the doors off of the tractor so that I wouldn't get heat-stroke.

Then, the disc mower pulled the three-point apart, so we "borrowed" the part needed to fix it from the other tractor. Sometimes it's handy to have two half-worn out tractors so that you can keep one running, other times I wonder if two half-worn out tractors are about as useful as one completely worn out tractor.
Tractor split apart, waiting on clutch parts

Soon after I started to bale the first half of the field, the throwout bearing and clutch in the tractor blew apart, which meant that we had to take the duals off of the other tractor so it could be used to bale the rest of the field.  For some reason, I must of really been worried about the lug bolts coming loose the last time I put those duals on the tractor because it took almost all I had to break them loose (alternating between jumping up and down, and hanging off the end on a long piece of pipe I was using as a cheater).

The stupid A/C in that tractor refuses to do its job just like A/C in the other tractor, so the doors also had to be taken off so that I wouldn't pass out from the heat, fall out of the open door, and get baled up into a bale of hay.    

I finally finished up baling the first half of the field, and was getting ready to start cutting the second half when I noticed a low tire on one side of the tractor so I put some air in it and kept an eye on it during the day.  The next day when I was getting ready to rake hay, the tire was even lower and now the other side was also low, which was a little concerning because I needed to get this hay baled.   All you can do at this point is air the tires up and hope you can rake fast enough to get done before you run out of air, which is what I did.  Just make sure that you stop once in a while while raking to check your tire pressure so you can make a quick run back to the compressor in time to avoid a flatter than flat tire in the middle of a field. 

By some stroke of luck, the tire held enough air long enough for me to get the hay raked, but the next day it was low again and the other tire was flat. What are the odds of that happening?  After airing both tires up, and driving slowly back and forth looking for something obvious stuck in the tire, nothing was found except that one tire was losing air faster than it could put it in. The consensus of everyone standing around looking at two flat tractor tires is that cheap tubes that have failed in some way might be the reason for all this trouble (there's no way to know until I get around to fixing both tires).
At this point, I had about thirty acres of hay left to bale, one flat tire, one tire that sort of held air, rain in the weather forecast the next day, not enough time to find a tube to fix this tire, and absolutely no desire at all to call someone to come out and fix the tire for me (it gives me the heebie-jeebies just thinking about paying someone to do something that I can do myself).

Since desperate times call for desperate measures, after a little "woe-is-me", expressing my displeasure with the unfairness of it all, and arguing back and forth, it was decided that the solution was to put one of the duals back on side with the flat tire and air up the other tire so that I could at least try to bale the rest of the hay.  The only bright spot in the whole crazy business of driving a lopsided half-dualed tractor around baling hay is that I was far enough away from the road that hopefully nobody had the chance to wonder why the heck I only had duals on one side of the tractor.

Surprisingly, I was able to get all thirty acres baled in almost record time, then was able to get the tractor back to the barn right before the "better" low tire also went completely flat (which makes me think even more that it might be something to do with the tubes disintegrating somehow rather than a more typical puncture type of flat tire).

As soon as all the parts get here, we can start putting one tractor back together, can get both tires on the other tire back to where they will hold air, and I can start getting ready to bale about forty acres of sorghum-sudangrass which I'm hoping isn't also going to be a knockdown drag out fight.

Wish me luck, sometimes I need it.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Grain Sorghum Update Along With Some Cover Cropping Problems and Thoughts

I had high hopes for the grain sorghum I planted back in late-April, I had a lot of crop residue on the soil surface from grazing the cover crop of sorghum-sudangrass I'd planted last summer, I finally had the weeds controlled, there should have been more than enough fertility to get some decent yields, the planter was setup almost perfect, and I had good soil conditions at planting.

Then it started raining and raining and raining.  The combination of a lot of overcast days, cooler than usual temperatures in May, and all that extra moisture seems to have really impacted my field of grain sorghum more than I thought it would have.  All those conditions made everything grow much slower than normal, root systems weren't developed as deep as they should have been, and I'm guessing that I lost a significant amount of nitrogen.
Grain sorghum starting to dry down with way too many volunteer sorghum "weeds"
 
The major problem I have is a bunch of volunteer sorghum-sudangrass coming up all over the field.     Sorghum-sudangrass is a hybrid which means it really isn't supposed to produce viable seed, so I probably actually have a bunch of different grasses growing that are a combination of the different parents to the hybrid which would be sort of interesting if it wasn't messing up my grain sorghum field. 

The volunteer sorghum-sudangrass blended into the grain sorghum and wasn't obvious until the grain sorghum was a couple of feet tall.  In the worst spots, it looks almost like I planted a solid stand of sorghum-sudangrass, and of course those spots are right along the road so everyone that drives by can see how messed up my weed control was.  I'm not even sure if I can combine those weedier spots, or whether I'd be better off just mowing or baling those spots.

The pre-emergent herbicide I used is supposed to control grasses like volunteer sorghum, but with all the rain it didn't seem to control it very good this summer.  Grasses are difficult to control in a grain sorghum crop, and from what I know sorghums are almost impossible to control in grain sorghum especially once they get much above a few inches tall and it doesn't help that you can't tell them apart from the grain sorghum until they're about 2 foot tall.

The lesson learned is that the sorghum-sudangrass should have either been grazed or cut for hay in late-summer to make double sure there was no chance of any of it producing any amount of seed.  Better yet, don't use something like sorghum-sudangrass as a cover crop if you're planning on planting grain sorghum the following year.

I've been wondering if I'd have an even bigger weedy mess out there if I'd planted a combination of sorghum-sudangrass, sunflowers, and cowpeas, then grazed it in the same way over the winter. 

In about mid-September, I should hopefully be combining this field, so stay tuned for updates on how frustrating it can be to combine a mixture of grain sorghum and volunteer sorghum-sudangrass,  how much money I either make or lose growing grain sorghum, and whether I decide to ever grow grain sorghum again.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Baling Hay


Last week, I started baling this summer's hay crop, and the first field to be baled was the hay meadow that I wrote about last year.  Last year, I wrote that I liked these native grasses because they were relatively low-input and they reliably gave me a hay crop year after year.  In the past, I never worried about a few weeds or even thought about fertilizing, but last winter I happened to read about a research project done by the Noble Foundation about the effects of fertilizer on native grass stands which came to the conclusion that fertilizing native grasses would result in much more grass growth although the profitability of that fertilizing might vary from farmer to farmer.

Back in early spring, I was still thinking that we might be headed into another drought (that was before the skies opened up and it rained non-stop for a month, so that's that for my weather forecasting abilities) so based on the data from the Noble Foundation studies, I decided to fertilize the hay meadow with a little over 100 lb. of 18-46-0 fertilizer per acre (which would be approximately 20 lb. of Nitrogen and 50 lb. of Phosphorus per acre) to make sure I'd have enough hay.  I also decided to spray the field for weeds because I wanted to fertilize the grass and I didn't really want to fertilize any weeds because of the old rule of thumb that you NEVER want to fertilize weeds.  The fertilizer and herbicide cost approximately $30/acre.

I wasn't really sure how much effect the fertilizer and weed control would have on my hay crop (I always try not to get my hopes up too high), but it was pretty obvious that there weren't that many weeds in the field even before I started cutting the hay which was a little encouraging.

In the end, I ended up with about 50% more bales of hay (4500 lb. per acre vs. 3000 lb. per acre) from that field compared to my best year's hay production which I'd count as a success.  An extra 1500 lb. of hay per acre for $30 is pretty close to a bargain in my mind. 

In addition to the extra hay production, I also noticed that I had a high percentage of big bluestem, switch grass, and even some sideoats grama grass (very unusual) growing in the field.  I've always read and heard that it takes more fertility and management to get a higher percentage of those types of grasses into a native grass pasture, so I'm guessing that the fertilizer helped to thicken up those "better" grasses.   If I was positive that I could do the same thing and get more big bluestem grass, I'd be tempted to start managing some pastures this way in an attempt to move closer to native tall grass prairie type of pastures.  




Supposedly, Grandpa would have had a fit over those uncut strips of grass left in the field, but it's never really bothered me, although the way the hay rake left the windrows all clumpy and uneven does kind of irritate me. 

Now I have to decide what to do next year.  Do I fertilize and control the weeds once again?  Do I only spray for weeds and hope there's enough fertility left from this year for a decent hay crop (phosphorus is supposed to be longer lasting)?  Do I spread some nitrogen fertilizer instead of 18-46-0?  Do I go the low-input way and do nothing at all?

The one thing I know for sure is that it's a heck of a lot more fun cutting and baling a thick stand of weed-free grass than cutting and baling a thin weedy stand of grass.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Double Cropping Soybeans, Grain Sorghum, Sorghum-Sudangrass, and Cover Crop Mixes

After a disappointing wheat harvest, I've been thinking about growing different crops instead of wheat so I have a better chance of making some money in the future.  For the last week, I've been relatively busy getting fields ready to plant, getting seed, and planting some soybeans, grain sorghum, sorghum-sudangrass, and a simple cover crop mix.

During the summer of 2011, I tried planting some double crop soybeans after wheat harvest.  We had an early harvest that year in late-May, had pretty good wheat yields, and had adequate soil moisture, so I figured it would be easy to make some quick money growing soybeans.   Back then, I was able to buy soybean seed for around $35/bag and the soybean price was in the $12/bu. range so it wouldn't take much of a harvest to break even, and I was going to making piles of money by the end of the summer.  I decided to "only" plant about 50 acres because I had never grown soybeans before and I wanted to start "small".

Almost as soon as I finished planting, it seemed like it stopped raining for the summer and it got hotter and hotter.  The drought in 2011 was supposed to have been as bad as the droughts in the thirties and my plans for making piles of money quickly disappeared.  It was so hot and dry that I didn't have to worry about weeds in the soybeans because there wasn't enough moisture for the weeds to grow, although the soybeans did manage to stay alive all summer (which was kind of encouraging now that I think about it).  I ended up not harvesting any soybeans at all that first year and tended to look at the entire effort as an exercise in cover cropping.  In the end, I figured that I might have gotten enough nitrogen from the beans to almost offset the planting costs.

This year, I decided to try double cropping soybeans once again, except that this time I'm really going small and only planted about four acres worth.  It took much longer than I thought it would to measure out a 4 acre part of the field, get it ready to plant, setup the planter, and then finally plant the four acres.  For no other reason than so I can remember, a bag of seed cost about $55, I planted about 125,000 seeds/acre, and I put down 30 lb./acre of nitrogen along with a pre-emergent herbicide to control the crabgrass.

I also planted about five acres of double crop grain sorghum.  I've grown double crop grain sorghum before and been somewhat successful, but I'm still trying to work out all the details involved with consistently growing a double crop of grain sorghum, so since I had some seed left over from planting grain sorghum this spring, I decided to go ahead and plant it to see how some double crop grain sorghum compares to what I planted earlier in the year.  Again so I can more easily remember the details, I planted about 68,000 seeds/acre (which works out to around 5 lb./acre), and spread about 30 lb./acre of nitrogen.

Growing sorghum-sudangrass is pretty easy and I'm starting to wonder if it would be better for the cattle, soil, weed control, and the bottom line if I grew even more of it instead of everything else.  About the hardest part about planting sorghum-sudangrass is getting the drill accurately set down to the 15-20 lb./acre range. Once you're somewhat satisfied that you've gotten the drill set as close to the correct rate as you think you can get it, you just fill it up with seed and start drilling.  In about 45-60 days, you either cut it for hay or graze it with your cattle, and then let it grow back.  If it stops raining during a drought, it will usually just stop growing for awhile and then start growing again after it rains again.  This year, I planted a 40 acre field with about 15-16 lb./acre and plan on cutting it for hay sometime on August, then I'm going to graze it in early fall. I haven't decided yet, but this fall I'm thinking about planting something like a wheat and turnip mix (45 lb. wheat and 1-2 lb. turnip) as a cover crop that I can graze out next spring before planting grain sorghum in mid-April.

This week also saw my first attempt at planting a cover crop cocktail on a larger scale than a garden plot. One wheat field has a weird triangular shaped corner that's about 1.5 acres in size with a terrace running along one side that's always been hard to deal with whenever it's being tilled, sprayed, planted, or combined.  With all the point rows and overlaps, it always seems like I end up covering twice the number of acres to deal with that triangle.  Because of all that, I decided to plant that triangle to a cover crop mixture so I can see if cover cropping would work on a larger scale on the farm, and also as sort of a wildlife food plot for the quail, dove, deer, and maybe pheasants. 

Last summer, I planted a garden-sized cover crop mix that is similar to what I planted this week except that I included much less sorghum-sudangrass this time because it is such an aggressive-growing plant that it dominated everything else last summer.  This year's cover crop mixture was mainly a combination of some of the seed I had leftover, and per acre I planted about 10 lb. of soybeans, 6 lb. of grain sorghum, a pound of sorghum-sudangrass, a few pounds of some OP corn (Minnesota 13), 3-4 pounds of sunflower seed I bought, about 10 lb. of winter wheat, and a pound of crimson clover.  I'm not sure if the winter wheat and crimson clover will germinate this summer and immediately die, or if they will wait until this fall to germinate and grow over the winter, but hopefully I'll figure something out from this small planting.  It's pretty easy to set the drill for a mixture like this, all you can do is open up the drill until the biggest seed can flow through and then you start drilling.  If I was planting a hundred acres of a cover crop mixture, I'd probably want to do some more careful setting of the drill just to make sure I had enough seed, but I'd still have to open it up enough for the largest seed so I'm not sure if I could be more precise than just eyeballing my setting.

If it rains consistently this summer, I might learn enough from all these different crops that I'll be closer to deciding to grow less wheat in the future and even more soybeans, double crop soybeans and grain sorghum, hay crops, cover crops, and wildlife food plots.  Or, I may just decide to plant everything to perennial grasses and stop trying to grow annual crops. 

As soon as anything starts to come up, I'll try to take some photos to document the progress so make sure to follow along as I try to figure out what's what.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Finished WIth Wheat Harvest

Hey!? That's not supposed to be sticking outta my tire?!
I finished up this year's wheat harvest a few days ago, and I can summarize the results by saying that we didn't get enough rain at the right time, we got way too much rain at the wrong time, I grew a lot of straw and not much grain, and all the weeds that I thought I had finally gotten under control came roaring back due to all that rain. This wheat crop had drought, flood, disease, and weed problems. 

We also had equipment breakdowns to add to all of the above, on about the third day of harvest, I ran a broken hay rake tine into a combine tire (who knows how long it was laying out in the field), the combine started driving at a funny angle down the backside of a terrace, and we had to take a flatter-than-flat tire off of the combine in the middle of the wheat field.  If you've never had the experience, it's more fun than I can describe to hang off of an eight-foot long chunk of pipe you're using as a cheater trying to break some lug bolts loose, and then trying not to get crushed by the tire when you finally get it broken loose from the hub.  Putting the fixed tire back on is even more fun, with all the drama of getting it back upright, almost back on the hub (How the heck are we gonna get the holes all lined up?), while also trying to not get flattened by a falling tire and/or have the tire go rolling outta control down the hill.  Hanging off of the end of the eight-foot long piece of pipe to get the lug bolts torqued to spec (they gotta be torqued to exactly 405 ft.lb.) wrapped up the fun for the day. 

After the epic flat tire battle was finally over, everything went about as smooth as it usually goes, a couple of pins that kept some augers running shook loose inside the combine and it was a simple matter of practicing my contortionist skills while standing on my head to put some new pins back where they needed to go. I also managed to set a new personal record that I'm pretty proud of by only bashing my head three times into the folded-up unloading auger.  It's always in the same place when it's folded up, but I always seem to hit my head on it whenever I walk around the combine, I wish I could figure out why that is.
Combining the pasture-cropped wheat in the weaning pen. Would someone please clean that windshield?
I promised myself that I was going to harvest the wheat that I pasture-cropped in the weaning pen so I could get a better idea about how or if pasture cropping would actually work on a larger scale.  But, before I could harvest my pasture-cropped wheat, I had to maneuver the combine through two sets of gates and a small pen by the loafing shed which would normally be a pretty simple matter if I hadn't tried to save a little time by waiting to unload the bin of the combine until after I had combined this little two acre field.  Since I had a partially filled bin, I couldn't fold up the auger, and with the auger folded out I couldn't go through the gates without smashing into the loafing shed.  So I had to carefully back the combine through those gate openings, and in the process I entertained everybody that happened to drive by at that particular moment.  In the typical way that things seem to go in my world, there wasn't anyone to be seen on the road all day until I decided to try to back a combine through some gates, then there was parade of traffic and onlookers.

For whatever reason, some of my best wheat yields this year might have been from this pasture-cropped area of wheat which is both a little interesting and a little disappointing.  It's a little interesting because it might actually be possible to convert all or part of the cropland to a perennial grass pasture and still plant a wheat crop by pasture-cropping, and it's a little disappointing because my "normal wheat" yields should have been  better than this pasture-cropped area.

I could almost understand having a lower yield in the pasture-cropped area but a higher profit (due to lower input costs), but getting the same or better yields in the pasture-cropped area doesn't make sense.  I'm still thinking about what it all means about how or why I'm growing wheat at this point, and what I might need to change.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Almost Time For Wheat Harvest To Start

Amber waves of grain with a few weeds scattered here and there
It's amazing how quick everything can dry out around here, less than a week ago it was relatively cool with highs in the 70's, everything was muddy, and I was worrying about making a bunch of horrendous ruts all over the wheat fields trying to harvest the wheat.  

But about a week ago the wind really started blowing, the highs crept up to almost 90, everything is drying out, and I'll probably be cutting wheat in a few days. As much as I pay attention to the weather, it still sort of surprises me how much the weather can change in such a short time and it's one reason I'm always on the lookout for drought conditions to come roaring back even after record-setting amounts of rainfall. 

Right now, even though I'm horrible at predicting wheat yields, I'd predict a below average to average harvest.  It was dry all winter, then we got enough rain to save the crop, followed by almost too much rain at the wrong time to help the wheat but at the right time to get the weeds growing right before harvest when nothing can be done about them, so hoping for an average crop might a little too optimistic. 

It's always better to be a little pessimistic and then surprised when things turn out better than you thought, than to be too optimistic and then really disappointed when things turn out worse than than you hoped for (that's a famous line from one of my many motivational speeches, call for info if you want to book me).

On a more optimistic hopeful note, as soon as wheat harvest is finished, I'm planning on trying a few new things. One new thing I'm going to try is planting a combination cover crop and wildlife food plot strip along one border of the field with a mix of sunflowers, grain sorghum, and whatever else I can find.  Stay tuned for updates on all the dove and quail I'm seeing, the big bucks I see during deer season, and how much the cows like eating sunflowers.

I'm also going to see if I can figure out how to grow double-crop soybeans by planting a 5-acre test field.  The combination of winter wheat and double-cropped soybeans seems like it would be good at both making me some money and building my soils, and it's something I've been considering doing for awhile. Stay tuned for updates about how frustrated I get when all those big bucks eat my soybeans instead of eating the stuff in that food plot on the field border like they're supposed to.

So stay tuned for all that and even more.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Eating Turnip Greens Part Two - Blackeyed Pea, Turnip Green, and Ham Soup

About two weeks ago, I tried my hand at trying to figure out a way to eat some of the turnips I'd planted as a cover crop that would be tasty enough that I wouldn't dread eating them if I ever had no choice but to eat turnips.  I'm still a little concerned that I might get shipwrecked Robinson-Crusoe-style with only a big bag of turnip seeds to keep me company and no good idea about how to make them halfway appetizing, so that every meal turns into a miserable battle between starving and choking down yet another bowl of bitter turnip greens.

My previous attempt at cooking and eating turnips wasn't a roaring success, the mashed turnips and potatoes weren't that bad and I could see eating them on a regular basis if I found myself all by myself on an island, but the turnip greens had some sort of bitterness that turned up in every couple of bites that I didn't really care for.

On my second attempt at eating turnips, I decided to make a blackeye pea / turnip green soup.  I'm pretty sure that most of the bitterness comes from the stems of the greens, so when it came time to get some turnip greens I made a point of just picking the upper leaves from the turnips instead of pulling the whole thing and trimming off the stems.  When I was picking these greens it occurred to me that I ought to try cooking turnip greens again with greens picked this way to see if the bitterness factor isn't as bad (stay tuned for that exciting action-packed update).

As an extra bonus for the frugal-minded shipwrecked turnip grower, the turnips will keep growing after pulling a few handfuls of greens from your turnip patch so you can make those mashed turnips sometime in the future without worrying about storing the turnips you've just pulled. 
Only the best of the turnip greens for me
After getting my turnip greens picked, making the soup was pretty simple, I'm not going to be able to cook anything that complicated if I ever find myself stranded on a deserted island so simple needs to be one of the objectives in this whole exercise of turnipy cookery.  To make my soup, I greatly simplified a recipe for Blackeyed Pea Soup that I found online.

I used a pressure cooker and threw in about a cup of dry blackeyed peas, a small ham steak that I found buried deep in the freezer which I cut up into little pieces, a chopped up onion, a little garlic, and about 4 cups of water.  Add a good slug of creole seasoning, maybe a little hot sauce, bring to a boil, then put the turnip greens on top, and put the lid on the pressure cooker.  After about 10-12 minutes of the pressure cooker doing it's whole pressure cooker jiggling thing, it should be done cooking, so either release the pressure or let it cool down on its own.     
Blackeyed Peas, Onion, Turnip Greens, and Ham
Once I removed the lid, I stirred the greens into the rest of the soup and they sort of fell apart and blended nicely with everything else. Cooked this way the turnip greens have a taste that's hard to describe, they blend in with the other tastes almost like a seasoning instead of an ingredient. 
Tastes better than it looks and it doesn't look that bad
A couple of bowls of soup with some cornbread made a halfway decent lunch, and I think I'm pretty confident that I could eat this regularly if I ever find that I have to be Rich Crusoe on an inhospitable island with some turnips that I have to eat on a regular basis.  I could also see eating it without being stranded on a deserted island, it would be a good way to eat your blackeyed peas on New Years Day although you might have to freeze your turnip greens (if that's possible). 

It would be even better if I'd had some better chunks of ham, if I'd soaked the blackeyed peas beforehand, if I'd used some stock (ham or chicken) instead of water, adding more turnip greens might be a good idea, and a little cooked rice added to the soup after it was done might have been worth the effort.

Some kind of soup with beef or chicken, the turnip root, and the turnip greens might also be worth trying.  

The soup more than makes up for the bitterness of the turnip greens, although I still might try the turnip greens again without as many stems to see what they taste like. 

Friday, May 29, 2015

Moving Bulls - Change is Hard

For almost two weeks, I've been needing to move one of my bulls to another pasture for breeding season, and for me, "move a bull" usually means sorting out the correct bull, loading him onto a trailer, and then hauling him down a dirt road to the pasture where I've got the cows grazing.   But with all the recent rains turning the dirt road into a bottomless pit of mud, I haven't been too enthusiastic about trying to see if I can pull a stock trailer sideways down a muddy road after it has slid into an inescapable ditch, so I've been putting off moving the bull until it stops raining long enough for things to dry out a little.

I'm not sure if I've ever mentioned it on this blog but since it's kind of important to the story I'll mention it again, but there are railroad tracks running through part of the farm that split it into two parts and there are a couple of underpasses that allow the cattle to move from one side of the tracks to the other.  For a while, I've had the bulls and a handful of later-calving cows in the pasture near the barn, and the rest of the cows and calves were two pastures away on the other side of the tracks.

I considered just trying to sort out the bull and walk him across the pastures to the cows, but it's not easy at all to walk, cuss, beg, and/or force a lone bull away from a pen full of cattle, across a pasture, through an underpass, across another pasture, and finally through a gate to another herd of cows while slogging though a bunch of sloppy mud.  Even if I had a halfway decent horse that knew its way around cattle and a pack of cow dogs, it would probably still be an exhausting and frustrating undertaking.

Another option was just combining all the cows and bulls into one herd instead of sorting them out into two breeding herds like I've always done it before.  A couple of weeks ago, I could have just opened up the underpass and the gates, and been done for the year with moving bulls, but I couldn't get over my bias towards doing things differently than I've always done it because for some reason, it's a little harder for me to experiment with something different when it comes to the cattle.  There are lots of reasons both for and against having a single herd with multiple bulls during the breeding season, but right or wrong, I've always tended to think the negatives outweighed any positives.

I finally decided to just wait until it stopped raining and everything dried out enough that I could get down the dirt road without fishtailing from ditch to ditch.  The weather and the bulls apparently didn't like that idea because yesterday I found all the cows and bulls on the same side of the tracks with only a barbwire fence separating the two herds.  Even though I usually check the underpass after every heavy rain, the last rain produced enough runoff to wash the gates open, the bulls found the open gates, and made the decision to quit messing around with all this wait-until-the-rain-stops-and-everything-dries-up-nonsense.  Since there there was no way I was going to get everybody moved back to where they came from, I opened the gate, and now we've got one herd for this breeding season (although I guess I could always sort everyone around sometime later this summer).

Today, I had some cows cycling, the bulls weren't trying to kill each other instead of breeding cows, I didn't have cattle spread out over two pastures instead of one, it didn't matter anymore if the road was muddy or not, and the world didn't come to an end because I changed how I was doing something, so maybe I never needed to divide the herd into two separate breeding herds after all.

After just two days of moving to a single herd instead of two herds, I'm wondering why I didn't do it sooner.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Rain, More Rain, Then Even More Rain

It's tough to get a photo that shows just how wet, sloppy, and muddy it is, so this is as good as it gets
I planted grain sorghum on April 26, and in the last thirty days or so since then it's rained just over 21 inches.  All the ponds are full and running over the spillways, it's muddy everywhere, and I'm hoping that it dries up enough before wheat harvest that I don't end up tearing up the fields with a bunch of ruts from the combine.  For over a week, I've needed to haul a bull down the road so I can get the cows bred , but it's been so muddy that I didn't want to risk getting stuck while pulling the trailer so It looks like calving season is going to be a little later next year. 

It's said that you should never complain about the rain, but it's getting harder and harder not to complain.  I'm starting to think that I'm more suited to living in a desert than a swamp or rainforest.  At least there isn't much chance of flooding around here since the farm is up on high ground between a couple of major creek drainages.
No-till grain sorghum field after a hard 3-inch rain
With all this rain it is a little satisfying that most of the rainfall seems to be soaking in instead running off on the cropland.  If this field of grain sorghum had been tilled before planting, I'd expect to have a lot of erosion and ponding in this field after 21 inches of rain in a month. 

Thanks to a combination of no-till, lots of crop residue left in the field, and maybe a little more organic matter due to my soil-building efforts, it looks like I didn't have much erosion in that field even though I planted back and forth with the planter (going up and down the sides of the terraces at times) instead of trying to follow the contours of terraces like I've always done in the past. 

There is some water running off the ends of the terraces and down some fencelines, but it looks like there isn't any soil moving and the water isn't particularly muddy.  Even if my no-till and cover cropping efforts weren't improving my soils, the reduction in erosion would be worth the effort (I'm not really fond of gullies in my fields).  I'm hoping that as soon as it starts to warm up a little, the grain sorghum will start to grow like gangbusters and maybe this will be the year that I finally grow some high-yielding grain sorghum.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Trying To Give a Little Credit Where Credit is Due

I've always tried to stay relatively anonymous online (if that's even possible) by being a little vague about exactly where I live, who also works with me around the farm, how or if we're related, etc., but it seems unfair and a little misleading to not somehow give credit to everyone else that's involved around the farm.  I'd have a harder time getting some things done without a little help, and I couldn't do some things at all without the help I get.

So, I've decided to start referring to people by initials, so that they can still be somewhat anonymous, they can also get a little credit for what they do around the farm, and I don't sound like some sort of go-it-alone guy single-handedly building a farm in the wilderness.

Plus, it will make it a little easier to tell stories about whatever is going on around the farm.

So stay tuned for exciting stories of what Rich and B. are doing tomorrow, or what Rich and W. did last week.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Trying to Eat Turnips

My "seed ball" oats and turnips experiment that turned into a wheat and turnip cover crop instead
As a quick reminder, last February I planted a few acres of an oat and turnip mix in a field as a cover crop experiment, then I planted some of that leftover seed mix in my farm garden/test plot area.  At the time I talked about how a few acres of turnips would feed a bunch of people and I promised myself that I would make an effort to eat some of those turnips since turnips and me have had a long running dislike for each other ever since I was a little kid. 

The oat/turnip mix I planted in the field had to be killed about a month ago so that I could plant my grain sorghum (I'm not sure if planting oats and turnips in the spring if I'm planning on planting grain sorghum will work around here), but the turnips I planted in the garden have grown into a great crop of nice-looking turnips.  The oats never came up, so instead of oats and turnips, I ended up with a nice mixture of turnips and wheat.  It looks like a weedy mess to the uninformed, but there are a bunch of nice looking turnips in that mess.

Perfect looking turnips with nice green tops and bulbs
So I decided that the day of reckoning was here, it was time to pull some turnips and see how they tasted, and if I was going to eat turnips, I decided to go all out and eat both the turnip greens and the actual turnips.  I cleaned the greens in cold water to get any dirt off of them (I imagine that gritty turnip greens are less than delicious), trimmed off the stems, cut them up, and wilted/steamed them down in a pot with some bacon and onion.  The turnips were just peeled and cooked with some potatoes to make some mashed potato/turnips.
Cut up turnip greens, onion, a little bacon, and steam
As I was cooking the greens, they looked pretty good, I taste tested them to make sure that they were tender. etc. and they tasted alright, but when it came time to eat them I couldn't get over the way an occasional bite would be overly bitter which might have been from the little bit of smaller stems I didn't trim completely off.  A little sugar sprinkled over them seemed to help a little, but they were still a little too bitter for my tastes.  I'm not sure, but I had the thought that it's possible that that bitterness would lessen or would "work" if the turnip greens were used in some sort of soup (it seems like I've seen some sort of ham, bean, and turnip green soup somewhere).

The mashed potatoes and turnips were fine, with just a little turnip taste, but what's the point of eating turnips if they taste sort of like mashed potatoes?  I'd rather eat mashed potatoes instead of eating mashed potatoes and turnips just for the sake of eating turnips.

I feel almost like a five-year old that's throwing a fit about having to eat spinach, but I have to admit that I'm still not that fond of turnips, at least the way I cooked them.  Results and tastes may vary, so feel free to try them for yourself and comment if you have any suggestions.     

Thursday, May 14, 2015

2015 Cover Crop / Garden Experiment

For those that haven't been following along from the beginning, I have a garden/test plot area on the farm that I've been using as an experimental area to test out different ideas with cover crops, terra preta, etc.  Last summer, I planted a cover crop mixture in this area that eventually grew to be mostly sorghum-sudangrass since it's such an aggressively growing plant.

Once the sorghum-sudangrass started heading out in late summer, I ran a lawn mower without the mower engaged over all of it so that I could flatten everything to the ground instead of chopping it all up with the mower.  The idea behind that was to terminate the growth and also create a thick mat of residue.  After I'd flattened the entire area, I spread some biochar over the area (about a 30 gal. trashcan of biochar spread over a 2000 sq.ft. area?).  Most of the sorghum-sudangrass eventually regrew after that to a height of about 36" before it was winter killed in early fall.

This spring, I was surprised at how good the soil looked in that area, I still had some residue on the surface, I had a thin wheat stand growing (not sure if that came from my cover crop cocktail mix or not), and it was easy to find earthworms almost every time I dug a hole in the cover cropped area (I've never really noticed that many worms in my gardens before).  It looked so good that I almsot didn't want to run the tiller over it.  I've built about four gardens, so far this one is the best one I've built, and I'm starting to think that growing warm season grasses like sorghum-sudangrass as a cover crop works quicker and better than growing cover crops of cool season grasses like wheat to build soils. 

I'm hoping that the part of my cropland that I planted sorghum-sudangrass and grazed this winter improves in a similar way.

This year I decided to combine some cover cropping and growing some actual food by planting what I'd call a modified Buffalo Bird Woman type of garden (you can find the actual book online at: http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/buffalo/garden/garden.html ).  Some people might call it a three sisters type of garden with corn, beans, and squash.  Typically corn is planted in hills about three foot apart in a four row block, with hills of beans and squash in between the larger blocks of corn.
2015 Combination Cover Crop / Garden Experiment Plan
I don't really want to do a bunch of hoeing in between the hills, I want it to be almost like a jungle of growth to get more of the cover cropping benefits.  So I decided to plant rows of alternating corn and beans, and rows of beans and watermelon to greatly modify the methods that people like Buffalo Bird Woman were using hundreds of years ago. 
A bucket with both beans and corn, a string line, and a planting stick and you're good to go
Planting alternating hills of beans and corn in a straight line can make your head explode if you make it too complicated, but with a string line and a planting stick marked every foot, it was easier than I thought it would be.  
 Everything coming up, from L to R, turnips, corn/beans, beans/watermelon, corn/beans, tomatoes, potatoes
With all the rain we've been getting since I planted, almost every seed has germinated and in a few more weeks it should look even more interesting, but the "before" photo is pretty interesting already with the alternating bean and corn plants.  Stay tuned for updates on this hopefully edible cover crop experiment.

And, so I can better remember what I planted, the corn is Minnesota 13, (an 87 day field corn) and the beans are just ordinary pinto beans from the grocery store. 

Monday, April 27, 2015

Planting Grain Sorghum - 2015

So much crop residue that it's hard to see where the row marker ran
Row cleaners seemed to be doing their job even through thick crop residue

Believe it or not, that's the field after planting

It's raining today ( a nice, slow, soaking rain), and uncharacteristically for me, I was able to get my grain sorghum planted yesterday at just about the perfect time for those rains to get it up and growing.

This is about the sixth or seventh time I've planted grain sorghum and I still haven't figured out all the ins and outs of reliably growing a decent yielding crop (although two or three years of drought made it difficult and/or impossible), but I think I might finally be getting pretty close with this year's attempt.  Since there isn't that much grain sorghum being grown compared to the amount of corn, soybeans, and wheat sometimes it can be hard to find good reliable information about how to grow grain sorghum and there's even less info about no-tilling grain sorghum. It also doesn't help that every part of the country seems to have different ways of growing grain sorghum, and the way they grow grain sorghum in Texas isn't going to work in Nebraska at all. 

With all that in mind, I thought I'd share what little I know about no-tilling grain sorghum in Oklahoma just in case there's someone out there that is looking for that specific sort of information (I can almost guarantee that you're going to have to do something slightly different if you're from somewhere else). 

From my experience, you need to start with a clean, weed-free seedbed, since it can be hard to control most weeds once the sorghum is up and growing.  Most of my weed problems are crabgrass (I like growing crabgrass for hay, but hate it in my sorghum fields) and marestail.  Crabgrass is usually controlled with a pre-emergent herbicide in both no-till and tilled fields.  Marestail is usually easily controlled with tillage, but can be a real problem in no-till.  

With the crop residue from the sorghum-sudangrass I had the cows grazing this winter along with the right herbicide application, I'm pretty confident that I won't have as much of a weed problem this summer as I've had in some years.  

Once the weeds are controlled, it's important to plant at the right time with the correct seeding rate.  Most of that information can be found on an OSU blog about soil fertility management that I recently found, but  basically for my area of Oklahoma grain sorghum needs to be planted either between April 15 and May 1 or between  June 1 and July 1.  

This year I upped my planting rate to around 68,000 seeds per acre (approx. 5 lb. per acre) so that I'll get a final plant population of somewhere around 55,000.  Hopefully with a higher plant population I'll get less tillering so I'll be able to get the crop to dry down quicker this fall. 

I also increased my fertilizer rates to try to get some higher grain yields.  In the past, I would have been satisfied with relatively moderate yields, but I've decided to see if it's possible to eventually reach the point where I can consistently get some of the higher yields (120-150 bu./acre) that are theoretically possible with grain sorghum.  As a bonus, with higher fertilizer rates, I should also see more forage growth so that I can winter more cattle on the stubble.  

Planting depth is also important with grain sorghum, planting too deep can greatly reduce your final plant population.  In the past, I've tried planting as deep as 1.5" with the thought that I needed to plant into moisture, but that was a mistake.  Now I know that grain sorghum shouldn't be planted any deeper than 1" deep and it can be planted as shallow as 1/2" deep with good results.  This year I ended up planting it between 3/4" and 1"deep.

That's about all I know about growing grain sorghum and this fall I'll know more about if any of the changes I made this year actually worked, so stay tuned for that update.