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Virginia growers making conservation-tillage pay

Virginia growers making conservation-tillage pay

• Farming on the James River, one of the major tributaries that feeds into the Chesapeake Bay, puts the Hulas under a microscope, but it hasn’t stopped them from winning numerous grain yield awards — both in Virginia and nationally. • One of the keys to making it all work, is having the right equipment to do the job.

Conservation-tillage is a must for Virginia grower David Hula, making it work from both an economic and a conservation standpoint is critical.

With the cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay a constant reminder, David, his brother John and father Stanley continue to do what they have done for several generations — be good stewards of the land. They own and operate Renwood Farms near Charles City, Va., which is recognized as one of America’s most historic farming operations.

Farming on the James River, one of the major tributaries that feeds into the Chesapeake Bay, puts the Hulas under a microscope, but it hasn’t stopped them from winning numerous grain yield awards — both in Virginia and nationally.

Along the way, they continue to prove that successful farming and successful management of the land, air and water can go hand-in-hand.

Hula says he is proud to say they can grow high yielding crops without any negative impact on the Chesapeake Bay. “We are spoon-feeding fertility to our crops, so we know it’s all being utilized.

“We have four dryland areas that have produced over 300 bushels of corn per acre. This year, three of those areas were planted to corn. Primarily because of the heat and drought, these areas did not have the potential to reach 300 bushels per acre. We recognized that early and adjusted our fertility program to match the crop potential,” Hula explains.

In addition, the rotation used by the Virginia growers insures that any fertility left over from the corn crop will be quickly used by wheat or other fall crops that follow corn.

One of the keys to making it all work, is having the right equipment to do the job, David Hula says.

During a recent tour of his farm, Hula went through a progression of the farm equipment used to produce crops.

Satellite technology

At the time of the tour, Hula was busy harvesting corn. He pointed out a distinctive yellow dome on top of the cab of the combine. “That’s our satellite antenna and inside the cab we can generate a map to tell us what we have harvested in any particular spot in the field.

“We can record how much we harvest and use this data next year to plan what crops we will plant there and what inputs we will use and what amounts. This year, it will be particularly valuable because it will tell us how much rainfall, or lack of rainfall impacted yields,” he says.

Perhaps more importantly, from a long-term perspective, Hula says the onboard satellite system allows them to keep up with controlled traffic patterns. “Since we are in a continuous no-till environment, we have to pay particular attention to the way these heavy pieces of equipment move across a field.”

In 1987, Hula says his father (Stanley Hula) wanted to go from no-tilling corn to continuous no-till.

“We selected a 67 acre field that is east of our primary farming operation. He picked that field because, if it didn’t work, we wouldn’t have to look at it every day while we were farming our other land,” Hula says — only half jokingly.

Dan Brann, then the Virginia Tech grain specialist, told the Hula’s that no-tilling wheat behind no-till corn would be a challenge. “It has been a challenge, but one we’ve made work on our farm.” 

The need to regulate traffic patterns is accentuated by the use of their continuous, or never-till system. Regulating field traffic patterns has required different equipment and different management strategies Hula notes.

They started out with a seven-foot Lewiston grain drill. Now, they use a 40-foot planter and a 20-foot harvester. Bigger equipment means less labor, but more soil compaction, so there is a trade-off.

“We have auto steer, so once we make the first pass, the combine drives to the other end of the field by itself. Auto steer helps with managing soil traffic patterns, but it’s not the complete answer. Last year we bought a grain cart to help gather crops and minimize soil compaction.

“The grain carts help us get into the field and get our crops out more efficiently and with less soil compaction, but they require more labor. “I’d rather have bigger equipment and less labor and every time you add a piece of equipment, it seems you have to add more labor to run it,” Hula says.

They use a Terragator that is equipped with a satellite control system that allows them to use variable rate technology to apply lime and fertilizer. Using this system, Hula notes he can use pelleted sludge and know exactly how much he is applying to avoid some of the problems associated with the use of municipal waste products for agricultural fertilizers.

Can work at night

The satellite technology allows the Hulas to work at night and know exactly where they are in any particular field. This can be especially important as the area they farm becomes more urbanized. He notes that it can be critical in some situations to be in a field when there are no people around.

For example, he says they farm Mainland Farm, one of the oldest continuous farms in the United States. The historic site is encircled by bike and walking paths, and sometimes it just isn’t feasible to be out there spraying when the surrounding area is being used for recreational purposes.

The Hulas planted their soybean crop this year with a new air drill planter and a new 320 horsepower auto steer tractor. The new planter is satellite driven and provides for variable rate application of seed and the auto steer on the tractor allows them to control traffic patterns.

The sprayer they use has a 90-foot boom and holds 1,000 gallons. Typically, they spray 500-600 acres per day. However, John Hula took on the challenge of spraying some particularly troublesome worms recently and sprayed 1,000 acres in a day, David Hula notes.

With this sprayer they can pour the target pesticide into the tank while the equipment is in the field. The inductor sucks the chemical into the tank and at the same time they can triple rinse the chemical jug, and it’s ready for disposal.

The sprayer has a fresh water tank, which allows them to rinse the sprayer tank and then use the water to spray the next field. “It allows us to be more efficient and more environmentally safe,” Hula, contends.

The Virginia grower says the combination of equipment and continuous no-till allows he and his brother and two support people to farm about 5,000 acres of land. “If we were still in conventional-tillage we would have to have more tractors, plow, disk and use more labor.

“We have a 200 horsepower tractor that serves primarily as backup to the new 8320, 320 horsepower tractor. So, we can essentially farm all our land with one tractor — because of the versatility we have built into this one machine,” he adds.

Making conservation-tillage work has been a labor of love for all the Hula family. Winning awards and getting national recognition for their crop production is nice, but the real reward comes from farming in an environmentally responsible way that is an asset to their community and their state and keeps Renwood Farms as one of the most highly regarded farming operations in the U.S.

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