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No-till, earliness trigger growth

Scott Matthews' shop is cavernous and clean. Parked in the corner, several tractors wait for the spring. Only his favorite piece of equipment — a Deere 1560 drill — is gone, sitting in a second shop a short drive away.

Matthews admits impatience. He's ready to start planting, even in early February.

“That's the name of our game,” said the National Con-Till's 2005 rice farmer of the year. “We're early, early.”

Matthews, 41, grew up in Weiner, Ark., an agriculture-based town some 20 miles south of Jonesboro, where he attended Arkansas State University. After college, he returned home with a wife, Susan, and a business degree. The couple has since traveled a few miles outside town to build a house and farming operation.

“When I was a kid, my father ran a large, independent fertilizer and chemical dealership. So my agriculture background is actually on the supply side, not production.”

Then, in the late 1980s, “Dad sold his business and got into farming. At the time, I planned to stay in the fertilizer business. But when Dad had some health troubles, I wound up farming. I began farming full-time in 1990. We picked up more land, and it snowballed on us.”

Now a third-generation family farmer, Matthews and his sole employee work about 1,150 acres. The acreage is usually halved between rice and soybeans. He prefers a one-to-one rotation between the two crops.

“We don't vary from that too much,” he said. “We've found something that works, so why should we?”

Cutting back

In the fertilizer business, everything was based on efficiency — something Matthews saw a lack of when he moved to farming.

“I saw a lot of repetitious fieldwork. Coming from the supply side, we focused on covering the most ground we could in the least amount of time. Dad and I brought that viewpoint to farming.”

The two soon discovered they could indeed cut trips across the field. “That led us to what's known today as conservation tillage. We tried a bit of everything: no-till, con-till and stale seedbed.”

Having given them all a shot, Matthews recently moved to pure no-till. “That isn't possible every year, but we do as much as we can.”

His interest in reducing tillage isn't new. In the early 1980s, Matthews saw a few farmers trying con-till, and it caught his attention.

“What held farmers back then was technology. Technology has improved leaps and bounds since. We have planters that will plant in residue and on hard ground. We have Roundup Ready soybeans now. It once cost us $60 to $80 per acre to clean up a field. Now, it costs a third of that.”

Matthews has evolved with the new technology.

“I've always been quick to jump on anything new. If it's better, I want to try it. The thing that interests me now is auto-steer. Using GPS, the system can drive a tractor around.”

Beyond labor savings, Matthews sees other advantages.

“On our pure no-till fields, we can't start really early or plant really late, because we can't see the marks in our fields. We're planting in a lot of standing residue. So, the auto-steer will widen our planting window. If we need to, we could plant around the clock to fit into an early-April window.”

If Matthews plants his crops in the spring when he wants, harvest is earlier than normal. Not planting early “can expose my ground to more water and can create ruts and extra fieldwork. Auto-steer would help me keep our operation pure no-till. Over time, I don't think there's any question it would pay for itself.”

Pushing the norms

When he first began using no-till and planting early, Matthews was often told he'd made a mistake. “I was way outside the box. People told me, ‘You've lost your mind. That isn't going to work.’ I even had an Extension employee tell me that. He was out here one day, and I had some early no-till beans planted in April. They were coming up through water. He took pictures and came back periodically to check. He was surprised they made it to harvest and did well.”

In spite of the naysayers, he persevered. “Other folks didn't like it, but so what? It made sense to us. In April, you don't have the heat that kills beans in May and June behind a big rain. Doing it this way, we're also planting on hard ground that allows water to get off quicker. I've found no-till to be a much more forgiving system.”

His father, who retired several years ago, was supportive of Scott's ideas. “I have ultimate respect for Dad. When I suggested planting no-till crops or planting earlier or planting on very rough ground, he never smacked me down. His support made it much easier for me to stick my neck out.”

And as their successes grew, it became easier to try new things.

“Our ideas almost always worked. One thing we weren't really trying to do was get a positive yield response. We were willing to take a little yield hit, actually, in order to plant cheaper. Well, since we adopted our current system, we've raised soybean yields for the last eight years. Go figure.”

When he started growing soybeans, his average yields were 32 bushels to 38 bushels. Now, Matthews is disappointed in yields under 50 bushels.

“We've been in the 60s and, two years ago, we finished fifth in the state soybean yield trials with a 70.5-bushel yield. That was off a 5-acre plot, but it showed me what was possible here. Prior to going no-till, I can't remember averaging much over 40 bushels.”

Matthews hasn't seen any difference in rice yields since going no-till.

“The one advantage we have with rice is between 50 percent and 75 percent of the time we can get away with using only Command. We live with a few weeds and it isn't really pretty, but our yields haven't been hurt badly. Without Roundup Ready beans, doing this might not be a good idea. But in a one-to-one rotation, it's not that big a concern.”

The system

In his two-crop system, Matthews wanted to find a way to plant early, no-till rice in late March or early April. Now, he's usually planting while others are working ground. To do this, preparation begins months earlier, with harvest.

“We normally begin rice harvest at the start of September. When we finish a field, the next morning we aggressively smooth down the levees. We prepare the field so we can plant no-till soybeans. If we need to put in ditches, we do that.

“A lot of times, we put out our phosphorus and potassium then, too. We do that because the ground is usually harder in the fall. In the spring, soils are mellower, and that can lead to tracks. So we usually have a rice field ready for no-till soybeans within two days after it's cut.”

If the combine isn't broken down, Matthews will sacrifice servicing it to do field prep. If it's a choice between greasing the combine and fixing a field, “we're fixing the field. I usually don't even care what the weather report said.”

When spring rolls around, Matthews plants an early Group 4 to a mid Group 4 — “usually a MorSoy — they've done well for us.” He plants around April 10 and cuts the soybeans from Sept. 10 through Sept. 15.

“We used to cut beans early- to mid-October. So we cut two or three weeks off our harvest time. We cut the beans, burn the fields off and immediately do field work. I flood irrigate the beans, so if there are any levees that need to be smoothed out, we do it then. We put in any ditches that are needed and put out the phosphorus and potassium. We're ready to plant next year's no-till rice by Sept. 15.”

On Nov. 1, Matthews starts checking fields to see if burndowns are warranted. If so, he catches the next weather window and sprays a herbicide.

“Usually, we don't have to do anything else until planting and Command application.”

No-till and flooding fields

Weiner is not only in a major rice-producing area, but is also on the Mississippi flyway. Matthews likes the outdoors and welcomes ducks, but this might be his last year to flood a field.

“It just doesn't work well with no-till. And that's a downside since I like hunting.”

On Feb. 11, Matthews had a field still holding water. Conditions weren't yet favorable to cut off the water and tear down the field.

“Hopefully, we'll be able to do that in the next couple of days. That field could have been ready to plant six months ago. It'll cost me some money to tear down that field. And it won't be in as good a shape as it would be if I hadn't held water on it.

“I don't like the way stubble does after it's been underwater. I like my stripped stubble standing — not burned, not rolled. Consistently, I've found that flooded fields will be a week to 10 days later than fields I don't hold water on. I don't think flooding is worth the delay.”

The award

In mid-January, Matthews spoke at the National Con-Till Cotton and Rice Conference in Houston, Texas.

“I sometimes give a presentation on early, no-till rice production. At the conference, they award a rice and cotton conservation tillage producer of the year. I had no idea I would win. I didn't even know I was up for it.”

In a huge ballroom, Matthews was eating lunch at a table with friends. Before announcing the winner, “the emcee tells a little story about him. When he was talking, I turned to my friend and said, ‘That sounds like me!’ He said, ‘Man, they'd have already told you if you had won — they wouldn't do that to you blind.’ That made sense. Then, my name was called and I fell out. I've never been so shocked in my entire life. It was a good moment, special.”

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