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 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.