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No-till changing farm dream to reality

On July 8, something unexpected happened in several of Carl Beavers' no-till soybean fields. Plants emerged from seed planted seven weeks earlier on May 16.

“I planted treated seed but didn't expect it to lay there that long and still come up,” said Beavers of his West Point, Ark.-area fields. “The day we wanted to plant, we didn't have enough moisture in this gumbo and waited for an expected rain. That came in the afternoon and I said, ‘Let's just wait until tomorrow to start planting.’”

The next morning, Beavers began planting on the edge of the field. By that afternoon moisture had been lost in the field's middle. “It took eight hours to dry down. It was that fast.”

Beavers is quick to learn lessons from mistakes. “What I learned in this field is that as soon as the no-till drill would close, we should have been in here planting. And if it wouldn't close, we could have used a harrow behind the drill.”

In late August, the fields were full of alternating yellow and green beans. Harvesting the fields will be a tricky undertaking. The shorter, more mature beans were pod-loaded and about two weeks from needing a combine.

“We'll have to wait on the beans that came up in July. If we had big enough spots of the mature beans, we could just spot harvest. But for the most part, that isn't the case.”

The soybeans are Group 3s and 4s and are prone to pop.

“What I'm looking for is the point where I have the same number of bushels laying on the ground as I could lose going into the hopper. That's when I'll cut.

“I've got to somehow figure out the optimal point in the maturity process to cut. That's what I'm wrestling with now.”

Beavers has experience with beans popping. The first year he grew Group 3 soybeans his farming neighbor called with a heads-up.

“He said, ‘Hey, Carl, you need to get down here and start cutting. I can hear your beans popping out. Pop, pop, pop.’ The next day, we cut them.”

Even with dual maturities, Beavers expects a good harvest from his no-till bean fields. “Where I planted in old residue, rice, corn, whatever — the worst field will cut 30 bushels. Where I had to work the ground, the lower-end yields won't be close to that. The water-holding capacity of the residue is amazing.”

Being so comfortable discussing agriculture, it's a bit surprising Beavers wasn't raised on a farm.

“When I was in college, I wanted to farm. But I recognized I couldn't get started. I didn't have enough money or help to do it. I did have some cattle but I wanted to farm and own land.”

With that goal in mind, after college Beavers went into the construction business. In the mid-1980s, after 10 to 15 years in construction, he began buying land as an investment.

“Back then, land prices were much more reasonable — cattle ground for $180 to $250 per acre and row-crop ground for around $400 per acre. Most of the land I bought cash-flowed through CRP money, government money, or the rent I received.”

Then, he began spending money fixing up his acreage.

“Everything I bought was rough and needed work. So if I bought a rice/soybean farm, I put in tail-water ditches and precision leveled it. If it was a cattle farm, I fixed roads, cleaned it up, put in corrals and pastures, fencing and anything else that would maximize returns.”

While still building, Beavers kept his farming goal at the forefront. He felt it was very important to raise his children in a farming environment.

“There's just something about farms and cattle that kids learn valuable lessons from.”

Not having grown up on a farm, how did he come to that belief?

“My grandfather had an old farm outside Clinton, Ark. I traveled there with him every other weekend or so. I learned so much seeing how he micro-managed his 40 acres.

“For example — and this is elementary, but it was a principle that stuck with me — he would leverage his resources. He would take his rawest ground and feed hay on it. He took his least-productive ground and, by feeding hay on it, made it valuable.”

Beavers is all about leveraging.

“If you're looking at averages, where you leverage your time, energy and money the most is where you take the least-productive thing and attempt to make it the most productive.

“Smart companies will find their weakest link and work on it. Odds are the good and average managers in a company will continue doing what they're doing. But if a company can pull the weak link up, the whole company rises.

“That translates to a farm too. And intrinsically most farmers know it.”

Besides leased acreage, Beavers — who hasn't built anything in almost a decade — now owns about 1,100 acres of row-crop land around Griffithville in central Arkansas. He also has 1,500 acres of “hillside cattle ground” outside Pangburn, Ark.

On a tour of his leased farm, it is obvious Beavers no-tills everywhere he can. In one large field planted in rice, he has knocked down levees and no-tilled soybeans.

“You can tell where the levees were knocked down — that's where there isn't much of a stand or the beans are shorter because they didn't come up until it began raining. The crop looks pretty good, especially considering the beans didn't get rain for a couple of months.”

Last year, no-till proved its potential when Beavers no-tilled soybeans into some of his non-irrigated pastureland. He'd run cattle on the ground for eight or nine years.

“We were grazing cattle on wheat. We planted soybeans into the stubble. Right as soybeans were breaking through the ground, we were running cattle off one side of the farm and spraying Roundup on the other half.”

Rain was abundant and timely and Beavers hauled off 35 bushels per dryland acre.

“I rolled dice and came out. I was looking for the minimum exposure and the maximum gain. The cattle market was riding high and I thought it was a good time to sell. I thought soybeans — with short supplies, August premiums — were coming on.”

Back on his new leased land, Beavers has also no-tilled soybeans into corn. The corn stubble has held moisture incredibly well.

“When we planted into it, it looked like a mess, a jungle. The debris was so heavy we had to drop down a gear to plant. We also planted pretty deep because of a lack of moisture near the surface. Still, the beans look good and they haven't been watered at all.”


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