Friday, June 27, 2014

Cover Crop Cocktail Test Plot Update, or Watching Grass Grow Really Fast

I planted this small (2000 sq.ft.) plot on June 4, to see if it would be feasible and/or worth it to plant something similar in a larger field.  I'd rather plant a twentieth of an acre and have a colossal failure than have something like an 80 acre failure. 

Since I planted this plot, it's rained somewhere around 8", which is more rain than in a typical year, so it's debatable if anything observed will tell me anything about how the same sort of cocktail would grow in any other year (of course, if it hadn't rained or we had a "normal" year, I could say the same thing).

Even considering all the extra moisture, it's slightly amazing that everything has grown so much in just a little over three weeks.  As far as I can tell, even though it's hard to tell sorghum, corn, or sorghum-sudangrass apart at this point,  the sorghum-sudangrass looks like it's the dominant plant so far and is already over 24" tall, but everything else also seems to be growing down in that stand of grass.  On a larger scale, I'd probably plant a lower rate of the sorghum-sudangrass, sorghum, and corn, and a higher rate of peas and soybeans.

It's also amazing to me that I can take a picture from two different angles and make the same cover crop plot look different in each picture.  If I had laid down flat on the ground, I could have made the grass look like it was twice as tall.  A picture might be worth a thousand words, but it might not always be telling the whole truth (that's the sum total of my philosophizing for today, so you can relax) . 

Kneeling down and taking a picture to make the test plot look slightly better (ignore that canola plant)

Standing up and taking a picture to make the test plot look slightly worse (ignore those weedy looking areas)
If you look close enough or go to the extra effort of clicking on the picture, you'll notice some "weedy-looking" areas in the second picture.  At this point, I can't tell if those areas are actually "weedy" or if it's a mix of soybeans, sunflowers, various weeds, and flax (by the way, what the heck does a flax plant even look like?). 

I'm not sure what I'd do in field with a similar weed problem or if I would even be able to find small patches of weeds in a field planted to a cover crop cocktail, but spot spraying a herbicide and then replanting those spots would probably be the "easiest" solution.  A change in mindset about weeds in a field might be the "hardest" solution.

I know that some of that stuff isn't a weed, but I'm not sure about the rest

I promised in my other post that watching a cocktail of grasses, legumes, brassicas, and other broadleaves grow would be more exciting than words could express (or so I've been told), and I hope it has been so far.

Stay tuned for more updates with exciting pictures of grasses and other stuff growing.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Finished Harvesting Wheat, What the Heck Happened?

The best thing that I can say about this year's wheat harvest is that at least it's done.

There were no major breakdowns besides a broken alternator/water pump belt that somehow managed to also loosen the A/C belt.  The engine overheated, the A/C compressor puked out a bunch of freon (from the overheating and loose belt), and with all the smoke and stink I thought for sure that the engine was on fire.  After I figured out that I didn't have to try to put out an engine fire and my heart stopped doing back-flips, it just took a trip to town to get a new belt and I was back to cutting wheat in an hour or so.  

It was one of the quickest harvests I've ever had, one long day of cutting, rain, a day of waiting for it to dry up, then another day of cutting, another rain and day of waiting, then a final day of cutting. The only downside to a quick harvest is that it was so quick because there wasn't much wheat to harvest, most of it was really short, and there wasn't much grain in the heads that were there. So, I had to run faster and closer to the ground to get enough material feeding into the header (at least the header has skid plates so I could run it that close to the ground).

I knew the yields were going to be a lot lower because it was so dry over the winter and the freeze (27 degrees) we had back in April, but I never expected it to be so horrible (about 20-25% of normal).   I absolutely hate dealing with buying crop insurance, but at least I had crop insurance this year (I almost opted out of it last fall) and should break even because I only buy enough crop insurance to cover a catastrophic year.    

Next year will be better (it shouldn't take much to top this year).

I rent a farm a few miles away, so I need to drive the combine down this narrow paved road while hoping I don't meet some guy driving a semi or something.  This year I didn't meet anyone at all, unlike last year when it seemed like I was meeting some sort of an oil-field truck every time I crested a hill.   It's a little hard to tell from the picture, but from 8 feet up in a combine cab, the road looks awful narrow, and since it feels like you are bouncing all over the road, it seems even narrower whenever you meet someone on the road. 
Heading back to the barn, hoping I don't meet a semi coming over the hill
So, if you ever meet someone on the road driving a combine, try to slow down and get over a little bit in the road so your ears don't start burning because the guy driving the combine is cussing his guts out at you because a combine doesn't handle like a sports car and he thinks he's about to slam into your car because you refuse to get over.  Words of wisdom from Rich.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Wheat Harvest Starts

The wheat has been ready to harvest for about a week or so, but it's also rained off and on for about a week or so.  The wheat would be dry enough to cut, then it would rain, then as soon as the ground as dry enough to hold up the combine, it would rain a little more, etc.  

On Wednesday, it was finally dry enough to try cutting a sample of wheat without making a bunch of ruts all over the field, so I fired up the combine and started cutting.  When I tested my first sample with my brand-new expensive fancy-dancy grain moisture tester (just like the ones the big-time farmers have), it showed that I had a 13.5% moisture level, so I was off to the races and started combining.  The temperature climbed to the upper 80's which dried out everything a little bit more (usually it's close to 100 when I'm combining wheat, so 85 is a nice change).
Cutting thin wheat along a terrace, at least there''s some decent crabgrass growing out there
It looks like some of the earlier planted wheat was hit a little harder by that late freeze in April than I thought it was, but at least the crabgrass looks good so far.  With the rain we've been getting, I'll be cutting this field for hay pretty soon, and I should have plenty of hay this winter (possibly enough for next year too).
Still not pouring into the bin, but it's better than trickling into the bin
I was a little disappointed about how thin the first wheat I cut was (it always looks different from a combine cab than from the ground), but it started getting thicker and yielding more grain the farther I cut into the field (it's much better when it gets thicker as you cut then when it gets thinner and thinner).
Starting to fill the truck up

Of course, it rained close to an inch last night, so everything came to a screeching halt today while everyone waits for everything to dry out again.  In the meantime, I get to watch the weather forecast hoping for a few hot, windy days to dry out the wheat fields while trying not to throw the remote through the TV when the nitwit weatherman gleefully talks about how great it is that we're getting all this rain lately.

The old saying goes, "Rain makes Grain", but usually it also works out that "Grain makes Rain".

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Angry Skies

There's an old joke that it always rains when the wheat is ready to harvest (or the hay is dry enough to bale, but that's another story for another day) and this year is trying its best to prove the truth behind that joke.   

This morning, the sky was dark and lightning was flashing everywhere (I didn't realize how long it had been since I'd seen lightning with the drought this winter until I saw all that lightning).   Usually the weather is like this in May (thunderstorms and tornadoes) , so I don't know what this means for the rest of the summer.

I played around with the camera on my cellphone taking pictures of the clouds and was surprised at how close the picture was to what I was seeing with my eyes so I decided to post a couple of them for the world to see. 

It looks like it's raining hard 10-15miles away

It's a double-edged sword with rain this time of year, I'd like the rain to hold off until I can harvest the wheat, but the grain sorghum, hay fields, pastures, and crabgrass all need the rain.  But, I like for it to rain, so I hope it pours, I can always figure out a way to get the wheat harvested a week or so later.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Planting a Cover Crop Cocktail Test Plot

I've posted about my plans for this cover crop cocktail test plot before, but the quick summary for anyone that's forgotten or doesn't want to go back and read the previous post is that I'm planting a mixture of different cover crops in a small plot to see if it is feasible to plant the same sort of cocktail after wheat harvest in mid-summer for both the soil building benefits and providing winter-grazing for cattle.   

My final mixture contains (amounts are lb. per acre):  
  5 lb. sorghum-sudangrass, (or haygrazer)
  5 lb. grain sorghum (or milo), 
  5 lb. corn,
  10 lb. soybeans,   
  10 lb. blackeye peas,
  5 lb. sunflower (a black oil seed type),
  3 lb. flax,
  2 lb. okra,
  45 lb. winter wheat,
  3 lb. crimson clover,
  3 lb. canola,

The haygrazer, grain sorghum and corn will all provide a lot of bio mass to help increase the organic matter levels over time and even though it will be winter-killed, it will still provide grazing for the cattle over the winter.  Some pearl millet would have been a good addition.

Since I'm not 100% grass-fed, if there's enough time for the corn the mature, the little bit of grain from the corn will also help feed cattle over the winter.  There should also be some grain from the grain sorghum, but the birds will probably eat most of it before winter is over, while the corn will be more likely to still be available later in the winter if I strip graze the cattle across the field.

Soybeans and blackeye peas will fix nitrogen, and will also provide some grazing and grain for the cattle.  On a larger scale, I'd probably use cowpeas instead of blackeye peas, but I didn't have any cowpeas laying around so I used blackeye peas as a substitute.

Sunflowers are a decent cover crop with big taproots to break up compaction, they should attract pollinators like bees, and might allow a harvest in ideal situations (at least that's the theory). 

Flax is a complete unknown to me (I'm not even sure if it will even grow here in the summer), but I have some seed that I got from somewhere so I decided to add it to the mix, and it should attract pollinators if it grows and blooms at all.

Okra is a poor-not-even-close substitute for something like sunn hemp, but it flowers to attract pollinators, it produces a lot of biomass, and has a good taproot for breaking up compaction, so I included it in my cocktail.  If half of what I've read about sunn hemp is true, then I would use it in any future test plots or fields, it fixes nitrogen and cattle will also eat it.

Supposedly, you can plant some winter wheat, (and other typically cool season crops like crimson clover, canola, turnips, or oats) in a cocktail mix like this in the summer, it will lay dormant until the warm season crops winter kill, then the wheat will take off and provide grazing opportunities for livestock.  I'm still trying to wrap my head around this idea (planting wheat in the summer), but if it actually works it would feed a lot of cattle for little investment. On a larger scale, a combination of cool season grasses like winter wheat together with oats might be even better.

Crimson clover is included to fix nitrogen, and provide some grazing (depending on how tall it grows). Crimson clover is usually planted in the fall, so I'm unsure how it will grow when it's planted in the summer (like planting wheat in the summer, I'm also trying to wrap my head around planting crimson clover in the summer).  A combination of white clover, crimson clover, red clover, and/or alfalfa would be even better.
Brassicas like canola, turnips, radishes, etc. are supposed to work well as cover crops because they are different compared to other plants because they are able to extract "unavailable" nutrients from soil by exuding acids (that's a greatly simplified version of what actually happens).  The nutrients are then available for the next crop when the brassica crop residue starts to break down.  I still have some seed left over from an unsuccessful attempt to grow some conventional canola years ago, so I threw some into my cocktail mixture.  I'm not sure if I would use canola or turnips in a larger sized field, it would depend on whether I could find some reasonably priced canola seed being sold for cover cropping purposes, etc.

Since I'm only planting an area that's about 2000 sq.ft. and I'm broadcasting the seed instead of using a drill to plant it, I just divided all my seed amounts by 20 and weighed them all out on a scale (that extra 10% should compensate for broadcasting the seed) .   After mixing everything together in a bucket, it looked like some sort of expensive bird seed mix.
All mixed up and ready to plant
My rough estimate, after looking at a few places that sell cover crop seeds is that this cover crop mix would cost somewhere around $35-40/acre to plant, which isn't dirt cheap, but also isn't overly expensive when you consider all the benefits like increasing the organic matter levels, fixing N (possibly also increasing P and K levels), and the grazing potential.  By reducing the amount planted, simplifying the mixture, etc., the cost could probably be dropped to $25-30/acre.

I was originally planning on waiting until after wheat harvest to plant this cocktail in my test plot, but since it rained 2" a couple of days ago, giving me a decent amount of moisture, and I'm going to probably be busy right after harvest anyway, I decided to go ahead and plant my test plot.  Every year is completely different, so I decided that I'd rather get an idea about what this cocktail will do under more ideal conditions than the "real world conditions" of the summer of 2014 (which might not even apply to any other year).

Planting was a simple matter of broadcasting the mixture by hand, and then running the tiller with the tines set shallow (1-2"?) over the plot.   The weather forecast calls for rain over the next several days (why does it always wait to rain until the wheat is ready to cut?), so hopefully something should be coming up pretty soon.
6/4/14, planted cover crop cocktail
To get some totally unscientific measurements, I drove a marked stake in the middle of the plot so I can take pictures once in a while to get an idea of how this cover crop cocktail is growing. 

Now, I can only wait.  Anybody reading this can also wait along with me for exciting updates with pictures of grass growing.  But don't forget that the pictures will also show legumes and other broadleaves growing along with the grass, so even more exciting times are definitely in store for faithful readers.

Watching grass grow is exciting enough, but watching a cocktail of grasses, legumes, brassicas, and other broadleaves grow can be more exciting than words can express (or so I'm told).