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No-till farming on-going learning experience

Fred Browning is a sixth generation farmer, studied agriculture in college and has spent most of his life managing a farm. Still, he says new information is the key to making critical farm management decisions.

He grows about 1,800 acres of corn, wheat and soybeans on a farming operation spread out over three counties and on both sides of the James River near Charles City, Va.

Browning is among a large number of successful farmers who have graduated from North Carolina State University’s Ag Institute. “It was a great experience for me — a great learning experience — and I continue to try and learn as much as I can to try and make as many good decisions as I can about our crops,” Browning says.

His son, Phillip is following in his father’s footsteps — kind of— he is studying agriculture at Virginia Tech University. Phillip says he hopes to return to the family farm in a few years.

One of the best decisions he has made, and one based on a great deal of research and long conversations with his farming neighbors, was to go all no-till on his crops. Though he had planted no-till soybeans as far back as the mid 1970s, he didn’t make the decision to go no-till on all his grain crops until 1998.

No-till farming is an ongoing learning experience, he says. “We tried planting wheat behind soybeans, but on our soil and under our growing conditions, it just didn’t work. We spent a lot of money on fungicides, but still could not overcome yield losses from disease,” he says.

Browning is in a pocket of farmers along the James River who began as a group using no-till systems and have stuck with it for 10-12 years, despite some trying times. Though no-till has grown in popularity throughout the state and across the Southeast, few areas have such a high concentration of long-time no-till farmers.

He says former Virginia Tech Agronomist Dan Brann is one of the pioneers who helped him and many area farmers get going with no-till. “He was not in favor of no-till, especially on wheat. Despite his beliefs, he put no-till plots in his research program and found how well they worked. He changed from a cynic to a champion of no-till farming and really helped a lot of us put the practice to work for us on our farms,” Browning says.

He also notes the key role Virginia Tech Soil Scientist Mark Alley played in getting no-till farming going in the area. Alley did a number of fertility studies for grain crops that really provided some critical information for no-till farmers, Browning says.

In more recent years, Paul Davis, an Extension county coordinator and regional Extension leader has taken some of Brann’s and Alley’s findings a step further. Davis is an outspoken proponent of what he calls ‘never-till’ farming.

Browning says he tries to absorb it all, attending numerous professional meetings each year. “I feel like if I can get one idea from one of these meeting that helps me make a better management decision, it’s a worthwhile investment of time,” he says.

Browning continues to tweak his grain farming operation with each new crop. When he gets ready to harvest corn and plant wheat, he starts out with a 1560 John Deere no-till drill. The 1560 gives me the uniformity in both seed spacing and planting depth I feel is absolutely critical to producing a good crop, he says.

“We spend a lot of time counting seed and getting the planter calibrated precisely. Last year we planted eight varieties and we counted seed on every one of them to be sure we got the right plant population for optimum production and minimum seed cost,” he says.

“Ultimately we want as high yielding varieties as we can find, but we try to keep some early- mid- and late-maturing wheat varieties to spread out the weather-related risks. Again, we look at a lot of information trying to find which varieties work best for our growing conditions and soils,” he adds.

This year getting wheat out and soybeans in was more of a necessity than in some years because of the high price of beans. Having wheat harvest spread out a few days allowed him time to get from one end of his farming operation to the other. Browning faces a bigger challenge than some farmers because he has to cross a busy, highly regulated bridge over the James River to get from one part of his farm to another.

Getting wheat combined, corn harvested, soybeans harvested and fall wheat planted is an ongoing challenge that requires a lot of planning. Planning, Browning says, has to be based on good information — if you expect good results.

Over a number of years, his results have been uniformly good. “We’ve had some drought years in which our yields have been low, but we’ve never had anything close to a crop failure,” he says.

Based on yields over a long period of time, he says wheat yields are likely to be in the 65-70 bushel per acre range, soybeans around 35 bushels per acre and corn around 125 bushels per acre.

He hopes yields will continue to rise gradually as his no-till land continues to mature and soil organic matter continues to go up. More importantly, he says, he hopes some of the input costs will decline as his soil requires fewer nutrients after a few more years in no till.

Browning says he is optimistic about the future of farming, but he hasn’t forgotten the old days. “I remember our first drought year, 1977, when we made 42 bushels of corn per acre. In the back of my mind I can’t forget that, and it is a consideration when I make decisions on how much of my crop I want to sell and how much I want to hold back,” he says.

He has storage capacity of about 78,000 bushels, which gives him some leeway on selling and holding his grain crops.

The veteran Virginia grower says having the knowledge to make the right decision is more critical in today’s high cost, high return environment. “I’m handling more money than I’ve ever handled, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I’m going to make more money. The risks in farming in today’s environment are truly unbelievable,” he stresses.

He points out that knowing the cost of a crop, even from the time it’s planted to the time the crop is harvested, is really hard today. “There was no way, when I sat down to plan my 2008 crop that I would have anticipated paying nearly $5 per gallon for diesel fuel, for example.”

Growing the crop, difficult as it can be, is often easier than selling the crop, he says. “We sold some of the 2009 wheat we are about to plant. It looks like a real good price now, but whether it will be a good price by the time we plant, much less harvest, the crop remains to be seen,” he adds.

Through it all, Browning says he remains optimistic — it’s a part of farming. Staying informed and making good decisions will likely follow Fred Browning, as will good profits and the next generation of Charles City, Va., Browning farmers.


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