In a way, Ron Sladky and Evan Brandes “supersize” some of their acres.
These Nebraska farmers do it by relay cropping - harvesting three crops every two years, with the following sequence: corn, winter wheat planted into the corn stalk stubble, and soybeans planted into the standing wheat.
They harvest a seed corn crop the first year and two crops - wheat and soybeans - the following season. They've been successful at it for several years, too.
While multiple cropping is nothing new, advances in no-till equipment, crop genetics and crop protection chemicals in recent years are making the practice more feasible.
Seed corn's late-August to mid-September harvest allows these farmers timely wheat planting, which is late September to mid-October in their part of the country.
But, even commercial corn can work in relay cropping, according to Jim Schepers, a retired USDA-Agricultural Research Service scientist who consults for agricultural companies. “It's not impossible,” he says.
Some of today's no-till drills do a good job of cutting through the heavier corn residue from a commercial corn crop vs. that of a seed corn crop, he says. And, winter wheat planted as late as Nov. 1 in parts of Nebraska has produced a good crop. But, he advises using a starter fertilizer with plantings after Oct. 15.
Sladky and Brandes are among several Nebraska farmers who have woven seed corn production into the three-crop sequence the past several years. Both farmers - Sladky in eastern Nebraska and Brandes in the central part of the state - follow the practice under center-pivot irrigation. They wouldn't go for it under non-irrigated conditions.
Schepers reminds that soybeans are being planted into the growing wheat crop during heading to early grain fill, right when wheat “is using water like crazy…so the lack of surface-soil moisture can retard soybean germination.” For that reason, he says, it's important to be prepared to irrigate shortly after soybeans are planted to make sure they germinate.
SLALDKY, WAHOO, NE, relay crops 80-100 acres annually on fine-textured soils. His relay-cropping returns were $38.79/acre short of conventionally cropped corn and soybean returns in 2005, mainly because conventional bean yields were so good that year, Sladky says.
But relay cropping beat conventionally cropped corn and soybeans on his farm by $83.57/acre the next year. Those tallies were compiled under a Nebraska Soybean and Feed Grains Profitability Project, where farmers conduct research with guidance from University of Nebraska Extension personnel.
Soybean yields under his relay cropping have improved almost every year: 48 bu./acre in 2006, 52 in 2007 and 56 bu. last year. These are close to yields from conventionally cropped beans on his farm, according to Sladky.
In central Nebraska, Brandes and several other farmers have been trying relay cropping for environmental as well as economic reasons. They farm in a sandy-soil area where the groundwater aquifer lies not far below the surface, posing a higher risk of nitrates leaching to the groundwater. The goal is for wheat planted after corn harvest in the fall to capture soil nitrates, keeping them from moving with fall and spring rainfall through the root zone and into the groundwater.
Brandes, Central City, NE, harvested 60-bu./acre wheat and 45-bu./acre soybeans in the first couple of years of relay cropping. “That encouraged us,” he says. But with lower wheat and soybean yields the past couple of years - wheat was hit particularly hard by Fusarium head blight (FHB) in 2008 - he's cut back from 1,200 acres of relay cropping to 310 acres for 2008-2009. “The economics weren't very good last year,” he adds. “Can we manage better to get that back up? We think we can, so we're going to continue.”
He and Sladky say seed corn harvest comes between late August and mid-September, leaving them time to plant wheat in late September to mid-October. Neither farmer shreds stalks ahead of wheat planting, although Sladky has thought about using a rolling stalk cutter.
Around June 1, right after wheat pollination or roughly 30 days ahead of wheat harvest, they plant soybeans into the old corn rows that straddle the standing wheat growing in the row middles.
Sladky plants a pair of wheat rows, 7½ in. apart, in the row middles of the 30-inch corn rows, using a 15-ft., 7½-in. John Deere 750 no-till drill.
Although he plants commercial corn with a 12-row planter, he kept a six-row John Deere MaxEmerge planter to plant soybeans on top of the old corn rows. “I'm basically kind of slicing the old root ball open,” he says.
THE SIX-ROW PLANTER is the same planter he uses to plant the male rows in his seed corn production. So, he had no extra equipment to buy for relay cropping.
“There are times when they (soybeans) are nearly as high as the wheat (by wheat harvest),” Sladky says. But, his 30-ft. grain head is equipped with a Crary Air Reel that sends a blast of air toward the cutter bar, forcing wheat against the cutter bar while pushing the leafy bean plants beneath the bar. “I cut wheat as short as I can (to get sunlight to the soybeans),” Sladky says. The air reel not only enables him to do that, but it also saves 1-2 bu./acre of wheat according to the yield monitor.
Brandes, in central Nebraska, plants his relay-cropped wheat in a pair of 12-in. rows in the row middles of 30-in. corn rows. He plants with a Case IH SDX planter with 21½-in. single-disk openers equipped with boots. He uses the same units for soybean planting. “We have a second toolbar (for wheat planting) that has the extra row units,” Brandes says.
HE PULLS A TWO-BIN Case IH air cart behind the wheat planting rig, with seed in one bin and 11-52-0 in the other bin to apply in-row starter. For soybeans, he tows a two-wheel Hinniker single-bin air cart with seed behind the planting rig.
His combine grain head is equipped with 14-in.-wide sections of rigid polymer plastic fastened under the cutter bar. These sections ride over the bean plants, pushing them down and dividing the wheat from the beans. They protect soybeans from being cut off while allowing a shorter wheat stubble to get sunlight to the soybeans, Brandes says.
Seed corn companies like to have corn rows ridged, he says. He plants with a tractor on 16-in.-wide tracks that helps him stay on the row ridges during soybean planting.
Brandes and Sladky both plant semi-dwarf wheat varieties to reduce the risk of wheat lodging, and they apply nitrogen (N) to wheat in the spring.
Brandes' seeding rate is roughly 90 lbs./acre (180,000 seeds/acre), while Sladky goes a little heavier, at 100-110 lbs./acre.
From the soybean end of their relay cropping, both of these farmers plant Roundup Ready varieties with mid-maturity for their areas. Brandes plants about 180,000 seeds/acre, while Sladky goes with 180,000-200,000 seeds/acre, depending on the seedbed condition. Sladky, who plants conventionally cropped soybeans at about 150,000 seeds/acre, says he goes to the higher rate for relay-cropped soybeans to be sure of getting a good stand.
Both of these farmers believe relay cropping can be worth the management it demands.
Brandes says FHB in wheat is a serious problem in relay cropping (see sidebar). “It seems to be limiting our yield.” He would like to see genetically modified wheat with a trait resistant to FHB. With that solved, he adds, “I think this could be a great program.”
Wheat stubble under relay cropping favors soil organic matter, according to Sladky. “It's hard to put a price on something like that.” On rolling land, he's found relay cropping has really helped with erosion control.
PEST AND WEED CONTROL
Until this year, when Fusarium head blight (FHB) and hail damage dropped his wheat yield to just 20 bu./acre, Ron Sladky, an eastern Nebraska grower, hadn't harvested fewer than 40 bu./acre under relay cropping. “Our best wheat crop was in 2006,” he says, when he harvested 70 bu./acre. (Wet spring weather favored FHB - popularly called “scab” - in Nebraska this past year.)
Grassy weeds don't seem to be a problem in relay-cropped wheat, he says. However, waterhemp and marestail are problematic. Sladky applies Harmony GT XP, a broadleaf postemergence herbicide with the N solution to wheat in the spring.
Evan Brandes, Central City, NE, applies Roundup before planting wheat and then follows up with one or two Roundup applications after wheat harvest and before soybeans canopy.
Sladky applied CruiserMaxx fungicide with wheat this past fall to combat wheat diseases. Brandes plans to apply Proline and Folicur fungicides with a ground application right at wheat flowering.
The FHB that causes head blight in wheat overwinters well on cornstalks, the material into which you're planting wheat under relay cropping, according to Jim Schepers, a retired USDA-Agricultural Research Service scientist. About the time fungus spore production is in progress, you're planting soybeans into the wheat, stirring up those spores. Under wet, warm conditions, the fungus is flourishing, he says. That's why you don't want to irrigate wheat in the week before wheat heading under relay cropping, he says.
Sladky applies Roundup and Baythroid insecticide to soybeans right after wheat harvest and irrigates with a 1½-in. application. Since his relay-cropped beans are among the last to be planted in his area, they may be particularly attractive to insects. He applies the insecticide on his conventionally cropped soybeans as well.
Most years, the hot, dry conditions in Brandes' region allows him to forgo insecticides for soybean aphids. 7