Workin’ It

We’ve been having quite a bit of moisture lately, and we’re not complaining after last year’s drought, in fact – we’re still in a mild drought. However, it’s May now, and we didn’t start working ground until the week before last. Last year, we started working ground in March, and we were planting in April. We feel like we’re pretty far behind, even though last year felt early…go figure.

What does working ground mean?

Working ground is a generalized term farmers use to describe the many processes that break apart and/or turn over the soil. We typically use two pieces of equipment to do this – a disc and a cultivator. The disc has sharp blades that penetrate the soil about 6” or so and turn the soil over, breaking up stubble from last year’s crop and any weeds or grass that have started growing (the weeds have a big head-start on the crops this year). The cultivator doesn’t go quite as deep or disturb the soil as much and leaves a much more even surface when it’s finished, but it can’t be used in very hard ground or thick weeds without first using another implement, such as a disc. Working ground loosens the soil to make it easier for our planter to deposit seed and for the roots of this year’s crop to grow.

Discing our first field. You can clearly see where the ground has been worked.

It seems these days you hear a lot about no-till technology, but it’s not the status quo for our farm. No-till offers some conservation benefits. When ground is not worked, the root structures of the previous year’s crop help keep the soil in place. The no-till process also saves time and fuel with fewer steps to plant a crop. The technology requires specialized planting equipment, though, to break through the tougher ground and deposit the seed. It also requires a no-till applicator for applying anhydrous amonia, a very common method of adding nitrogen (fertilizer) to the soil. Generally, no-till also requires more herbicide use because weeds are able to develop stronger roots that might otherwise have been disturbed or destroyed by tillage.

We do occasionally no-till, but there are several reasons we don’t regularly employ this technology. For one, we don’t have the specialized equipment required. We did modify our planter this year in the hopes of reducing tillage, but it’s still not ready for planting into thick ground cover. Our drill on the other hand cannot be modified, and we also can’t afford to upgrade to a no-till capable model at the moment. The same goes for our anhydrous applicator. We also haul manure as fertilizer. We have it readily available, and it’s natural and great for the soil, but it has to be worked into the ground. Finally, there is typically a reduction in yield when no-till technology is employed, especially the first few years. We don’t sell many crops, but we are trying to feed our cows with a limited supply of land. With the type and size of our operation, going 100% no-till just doesn’t make sense.

An anhydrous ammonia tank. This is how we add nitrogen (which corn needs to grow) to our soil.

Two weeks ago we finally had a little dry weather and got in the field to start working ground. We used the disc on a couple of fields, and just the field cultivator on another, and we’ve applied anhydrous to all three. Yesterday we even got 15 acres of corn planted, but we’ll be waiting several more days to continue as we expect rain and snow and will have to wait for it to dry out again. We still have manure to haul, more ground to work, and more fertilizer to apply before we can finish our planting. We’re off to a late start, but we’ll be going full-speed-ahead at every dry opportunity. What a different a year makes.

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