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When rain is scarce, farmers need to make every inch countWhen rain is scarce, farmers need to make every inch count

No-till on the Plains speaker emphasizes farming for 'bushels per inch' as well as 'bushels per acre.’

Walt Davis 1

January 31, 2017

5 Min Read
KEEP TRYING: Rick Bieber talked to farmers attending this year's No-till on the Plains winter conference about his success with no-till, cover crop cocktails and mob grazing.

When you farm in an area where rainfall is short, you have to learn how to make the most of every inch of water.

Rick Bieber, who farms near Trail City, S.D. — a region that gets about 16 inches of annual rainfall — says you have to know how many bushels you get per gallon of water in order to farm efficiently.

Bieber, who spoke to farmers attending the 2017 No-till on the Plains Winter Conference in Salina, has about 5,000 acres of cropland and 5,000 acres of rangeland for a 400-head cow-calf operation.

He has been in a continuous no-till system for more than two decades, with main crops of hard red spring wheat, hard red winter wheat, corn, flax, peas, soybeans, safflower and alfalfa.

Bieber said the county where he farms is the annually rated as one of the top three poorest counties in the U.S. He is a fourth-generation farmer there.

In the farm crisis of the 1980s, he said, his father and brother decided to leave the operation, and he took over.

"I made the decision to sell the tillage equipment to keep the farm operating. We went no-till and never looked back," he said.

At the time, typical yields were 17 to 21 bushels for wheat, 30 to 50 bushels for corn, and 300 to 1,000 pounds per acre for sunflowers. That amounted to about 3 bushels of corn per inch of rain, he said.

Through the years, the farm showed steady improvement. Bieber began immediately using stripper heads to harvest wheat, leaving more stubble for residue on the field in the hope of capturing more snowfall.

When wheat stubble falling to the ground became a problem, he began experimenting with cover crops to see if that would provide food for soil biology to thrive and leave wheat stubble intact. It worked.

"So often, we want to work on fertility; we don't connect it to life in the soil," he said. "We need to feed our below-the-ground livestock just like we have to feed our above-the-ground livestock."

By 1998, 11 years into no-till, he was getting 4 bushels per inch of rain. In 2002, a severe drought year with only 8.5 inches of rain, yields were awful, down to around 34 bushels to the acre — still 4 bushels per inch of rain.

Cheapest herbicide is seed
Bieber said he has discovered in his operation that the best, cheapest herbicide a farmer can buy is seed, the cover crop seed that helps prevent weeds from getting a start in fields.

He said he also discovered that a cocktail of cover crops rather than a monocrop was more resistant to drought and boosted yields on cash crops planted behind the cover crop.

As a result, he said, he had a positive cash flow on corn even when prices dropped below $2 a bushel because his cost was $1.64 per bushel.

At the same time, he said that on-farm storage to wait out the markets and get better prices has been a key strategy.

"We have added more and more bins on the farm," he said. "I have more and more trucks and more and more bins because I can't get crops to market."

Bieber continues to experiment with ways to improve the productivity of his land and the profitability of his cattle.

Mob grazing and cover crops
He has added mob grazing of grass and cover crops to his plan. He used single-strand poly wire with a homemade timed latch to move cattle several times a day from one paddock to the next. The idea is to even out deposits of nutrients from manure across the field.

He has his heifers on native pasture, and his mature cows graze cornstalks with cover crops.

"I plant crimson clover, triticale and hairy vetch into the stalks," he said. "But I can't stress enough that you have to find the cover crop mix that works for you. Don't copy mine. Figure out your own."

He said one way to tell what your soil is asking for by way of biodiversity is to study the weeds. He said that came to him while spraying herbicide.

"I noticed there was a lot of wild buckwheat popping up," he said. "I thought maybe I should try planting tame buckwheat as a cover crop, and it just took off like crazy."

Nature loves diversity, he said, and that applies to cover crops.

"We've done several trials with Extension using just one cover crop or a mix, and in every single case, the mix has given better results," he said.

In 2006, he said, Extension planted demonstration plots of different cover crops. He planted the rest of the field to a cocktail, using all the varieties in the demo plots as a mixture. The result: When the monoculture plots went brown and dormant in the summer heat, his cocktail field stayed green.

"These days, I think of myself as farming cubed acres where I used to farm squared acres. I am farming below the surface down to 8 feet deep," he said.

Community benefits, too
The impact on the community from new farming methods has been profound, he said.

"Back 25 years ago, the local co-op handled about 300,000 bushels of wheat a year and had six to eight employees," he said. "Everything was wheat, fallow. Today, the co-op handles 300,000 bushels of wheat per day during harvest, about 30 days a year. They handle about 300,000 bushels of corn a day during harvest, another 30 days per year. They handle about 10,000 tons of sunflowers a day during harvest. And they have 60 to 70 employees. That's how much difference you can make in your community."

Above all, Bieber urged farmers not to shy away from new ideas.

"Keep asking questions, keep trying new things," he urged. "Go back home and resolve to try just one thing you learned at this conference on your own farm."

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