Demonstrating, Evaluating, and Extending Diversified Direct-Seeded Cropping Systems for Grower Risk-Management in the Inland Northwest

Final Report for SW00-020

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2000: $53,687.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2004
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $5,369.00
Region: Western
State: Washington
Principal Investigator:
Co-Investigators:
Dennis Roe
USDA-NRCS
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Project Information

Abstract:

USDA-SARE supported the Northwest Crops Project, the Spokane County Direct Seeding Project, and the Wilke Project. These eastern Washington projects involved direct seeding (no-till), were grower-driven, and included field scale, on-farm experiments.

In the Northwest Crops Project, a 3-year direct seed crop rotation did not provide statistical yield or economic benefit over a 4-year crop rotation that included alternative crops like corn and mustard, but it was less risky from the farmer perspective. In the Wilke Project the 3-year rotation tended to perform better. Spokane County growers found ways to save money on residue management treatments in direct seeded fields.

Project Objectives:
  1. Demonstrate the Agronomic Feasibility of Direct Seeded, Annual-Cropping Systems in the Intermediate and a High Precipitation Region of the Inland Northwest by completing the current 3- and 4-year direct seed crop rotations, initiating a second cycle for each rotation for the Wilke and Northwest Crops Projects, and by initiating on-farm testing projects within direct seed crop rotations for the Spokane County group.

    Document the Economic and Agronomic Parameters that Farmers Need for Decision-Making in Transition to the New Systems by collecting and collating essential economic and agronomic data from the demonstration sites. The combined projects will continue to identify the risks that growers must take, and will focus on parameters that farmers prioritize in deciding whether and how to adopt direct seeding.

    Extend the Concepts and Principles of Direct Seeding Systems Through Farmer-to-Farmer Learning by disseminating farm demonstration project results. There will also be back-up and scientific explanations from researchers, Extension, Conservation Districts, and private industry. Tours will be the mainstay, supported with winter meetings and written materials.

Introduction:

With the inception of the 1996 Freedom to Farm bill, there was renewed interest in direct seeding (no-till) in the Pacific Northwest USA. In the increasingly global market of the late 1990s, farmers recognized the need for increased farming efficiency and soil stewardship in order to remain competitive.

Regional farmers had tried direct seeding in the 1970s, but many of them failed and even went bankrupt. Reasons cited include: ignorance of “green bridge” principles for managing soil-borne diseases, seed drills poorly adapted to steep hillsides, and high interest rates. However, in 1995, the Monsanto Corporation took several area farmers to North and South Dakota to see the no-till cropping systems research of Dr. Dwayne Beck of South Dakota State University. Seeing the accomplishments of this public-private effort involving growers, agribusinesses, and land-grant university scientists sparked the imagination of eastern Washington growers. Subsequently, more than 100 farmers from the low, intermediate, and high rainfall zones in eastern Washington traveled to South Dakota to see Beck's research. Most returned believing that direct seeding had tremendous potential to: 1) reduce input costs; 2) prevent soil erosion; 3) improve air, soil, and water quality; 4) add cropping flexibility and diversity; 5) expand options for control of weeds, diseases, and insect pests; 6) and increase their farm income.

Researchers and farmers initiated several research and demonstration projects across eastern Washington to adapt and test direct seeding principles to the area. This grant funded the Northwest Crops Project and the Spokane Direct Seeding Project, and also provided extension funds for the Wilke Project. The design of these three projects was on-farm testing using large plots and all farm-size equipment. Also, they were all grower-driven and included collaboration among university researchers, Extension faculty, farmers, NRCS, and conservation districts. Grower cooperators were involved in the design of the projects from the beginning and they were essential to the Extension objectives as they offered their neighbors farmer credibility. They spoke about their project participation and experiences at winter workshops and hosted field tours to their experimental plots.

The Pacific Northwest has a Mediterranean climate with most precipitation occurring during the winter, and annual amounts vary widely. While this climate is superb for cereal grain production, the lack of summer rainfall makes it challenging to grow warm season crops that provide a crop rotation with the best diversity for disease and weed management. Consequently, the agricultural infrastructure for crop processing and marketing is centered around cereal grains.

Farmers in the lowest rainfall areas depend on irrigation water for crop production, but they were not part of this project. In the dryland farming areas, farmers use annual cropping where they receive more than 18 inches of rain per year. In the intermediate rainfall area (12 to 17 inches annually) they have traditionally used summer (tillage) fallow one year in three to ensure timely establishment of their winter wheat crop. In the low rainfall area (8 to 11 inches annually) they have traditionally alternated winter wheat with summer fallow.

This project focused on farmers in the intermediate and high rainfall areas who wanted to transition to direct seeding while effectively managing heavy crop residue without burning, eliminate tillage fallow from their rotation, and diversify crop rotations.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • John Aeschliman
  • David Bezdicek
  • Pine Creek Conservation District
  • Spokane County Conservation District
  • Palouse Conservation District
  • Palouse Rock Lake Conservation District
  • Whitman Conservation District
  • R. James Cook
  • Trevor Cook
  • Glenn and Bryan Dobbins
  • LeRoy Druffel
  • Randy and Jeff Emtman
  • Tracy Eriksen
  • Paul and Jake Gross
  • Herb Hinman, Cooperator
  • David Huggins
  • Ron Kile
  • David Lundgren
  • Jon Newkirk
  • David Ostheller
  • Timothy Paulitz
  • Dennis Pittmann
  • Randy Repp
  • David and Paul Ruark
  • Darla Rugel
  • Steve Swannack
  • Larry Tee
  • Dennis Tonks

Research

Materials and methods:

USDA-SARE funding supported the research for the Northwest Crops Project in Whitman and Garfield Counties and the Spokane County Direct Seeding Project. Reports from these projects have been submitted as Word documents due to incompatibility with this system.

Research results and discussion:

USDA-SARE funding supported the research for the Northwest Crops Project in Whitman and Garfield Counties and the Spokane County Direct Seeding Project. This grant also supported publication and extension of results from the Wilke Direct Seeding Project. Reports from these three projects have been submitted as Word documents due to incompatibility with this system.

For a complete copy of the project reports, including tables and graphs, please contact Diana Roberts at WSU Extension, 222 N Havana St, Spokane WA 99202. Phone 509-477-2167 or E-mail robertsd@wsu.edu. Or go to the Pacific Northwest Conservation Tillage website at http://pnwsteep.wsu.edu/ and then to the On-Farm Testing section.

We will also post to this website Microsoft Excel spreadsheets that contain the economic data from the Northwest Crops Project. Farmers may use these spreadsheets to calculate the economic viability of a crop or direct seed crop rotation on their own farms. You may download these read-only spreadsheets, save them under a different name, and enter your own data e.g. land rent or crop yields, and the program will automatically recalculate the economics.

We will also post to this website a report from a quantitative study we conducted, using SARE funds, to compare soilborne pathogens in 3-yr and 4-yr direct seeding rotations at the Wilke Farm and in the Northwest Crops Project.

Research conclusions:
  • The statistical analysis of the Northwest Crops Project showed that for a farmer in the intermediate rainfall interested in direct seeding, a 4-year crop rotation was no better nor worse than a 3-year rotation. This should enable growers to choose a crop rotation based on current environmental conditions and crop prices for the current season. Within these rotations, certain crops did confer apparent benefit on subsequent crops, as discussed in the project report.

    Of 6 cooperating growers, however, 4 agreed that the 3-yr rotation was feasible for their area whereas none agreed that the 4-yr rotation was feasible. This rotation has far more risk associated with it due to 2 years in alternative crops that are tricky to grow and are not as well adapted to the region as are cereal grains. Some of the cooperators, and neighboring farmers, will continue to grow corn in locations and years with favorable conditions. Interest in growing Brassica oilseeds is fairly high across eastern Washington, and will increase when local groups are successful in establishing oil crushers and companion oilseed industries. (None are operating currently.)

    In the Spokane County Direct Seeding Project, results from the studies enabled most cooperators to make management decisions that should save them money.

    The stubble height study at Latah showed that mowing stubble prior to direct seeding was not beneficial to crop yield and the difference in adjusted returns was $13.98/A. This represented a savings of $8,388 per year for the grower if he ceased mowing on 600 acres going into direct seeding.

    The study at Fairfield showed that direct seeding in the spring without any prior residue management was neither consistently more nor less economic than disk ripping. It provided the grower with an incentive to continue with minimum tillage and to direct seed in the spring when environmental conditions were favorable.

    The fertilizer study at Valleyford showed that the growers’ previous practice of applying 150 lb/Acre rather than 50 lbs/Acre of nitrogen to failing bluegrass stands did not increase yield of the subsequent oat crop and tended to reduce oat test weight and marketability, when a starter fertilizer was used (a recommended practice). They also observed that high nitrogen fertilizer also tended to increase nitrate levels in the oat hay, which could cause problems when it was fed to cattle. Adjusted returns were also significantly less at the highest application rate. The farmers decided to take out grass in the fall instead of waiting till the spring to see if the stand would last another year. Ceasing this fall fertilization practice would save them $50 per acre as out-of-pocket expense, or $50,000 per year over an average of 1,000 acres. As there was no zero level of fall fertilizer, we cannot predict the effects of that treatment.

    The study with Biocat residue digester showed that the treatment lowered adjusted returns by $21.83 per acre for a negligible grain yield increase and reduction in spring residue. If the farmers had continued using this product, it would have cost them $17,464 per year to apply Biocat alone to an average of 800 acres of winter wheat stubble. Applying Biocat plus its companion products in the third year did provide a statistically significant yield increase (4.2 bu/A wheat), but the adjusted return was significantly less ($21.91/Acre).

    The disking versus direct seeding portion of the Biocat study was less conclusive. The disking treatment significantly reduced adjusted returns by $29.36/A in 2001, by $13.23/A in 2002, and increased adjusted returns by $13.69 in 2003.

    The rotary subsoiler study showed that the subsoiler treatment provided a 3 bu/A nonsignificant yield loss, compared with the control, for the 2 years’ data analyzed. However, subsoiling significantly reduced the adjusted returns by $16.66/A (grower cost estimate of $5/A) by $22.24/A (WSU cost estimate of $22.24/A), and the grower decided it was not an economic practice. This decision saved $33,320 to $44,480 per year over an average of 2,000 acres direct seeded into winter wheat.

    The Spokane County Direct Seeding Project showed that a number of practices that the cooperating farmers were doing or considering doing would not be cost effective. Our numbers show that together they can save around $120,000 per year by following the results of these studies. These figures will be much larger if other farmers successfully follow these practices.

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

The final reports from this SARE-funded project will all be published as electronic Extension bulletins. We will post them to the PNW Conservation Tillage website at http://pnwsteep.wsu.edu/ and then to the On-Farm Testing section.

Bulletins published

Education Bulletin 1960E, Cost of Producing Canola and Mustard Oilseeds in Eastern Washington and North Central Idaho. Herb Hinman (WSU Extension Farm Management Specialist), Dennis Pittmann (WSU Crops and Soils Dept, formerly WSU Extension), Dennis Roe (NRCS, Pullman). Published in September 2003, and listed on WSU Farm Management Website.

Bulletins in progress

The Spokane County Direct Seeding Project (2001 to 2003):an on-farm project to answer grower questions about their transition to direct seeding.
Diana Roberts, WSU Extension Agronomist, Spokane County; Dennis Roe, NRCS, Pullman; Roger Veseth, WSU/UI Conservation Tillage Specialist (deceased); and Dennis Pittmann, WSU Crops and Soils Department (formerly WSU Extension research technician)

The Northwest Crops Project (1998 to 2003): an on-farm comparison of a 3-year and a 4-year crop rotation under direct seeding for the intermediate rainfall area of eastern Washington.
Diana Roberts, WSU Extension Agronomist, Spokane County; Herb Hinman, WSU Extension Farm Management Specialist, Pullman; Timothy Paulitz, Research Plant Pathologist, USDA-ARS, Pullman; Dennis Roe, NRCS, Pullman; Roger Veseth, WSU/UI Conservation Tillage Specialist (deceased); Dennis Pittmann, WSU Crops and Soils Department (formerly WSU Extension research technician); Mary Fauci, WSU Crops and Soils Department

The Wilke Project – An Analysis of Alternative Crop Rotations in the Intermediate Rainfall Area of Eastern Washington Dennis Tonks, Extension Dryland Cropping Systems Specialist; Darla Rugel, Agricultural Research Technician; Diana Roberts, Area Extension Educator; Jonathan Newkirk, Director, Puyallup Research and Extension Center; Tom Platt, Area Extension Educator; Timothy Paulitz, Research Plant Pathologist, USDA-ARS, Root Disease and Biological Control Unit, Pullman

Other articles and publications from the project

2003

Dennis Pittmann: Northwest Crops Project June Tour. The Steward newsletter, July 2003.
Dennis Pittmann: Cost of Producing Canola and Mustard Oilseeds in Eastern Washington and North Central Idaho. The Steward newsletter, October 2003.

2002

Dennis Pittmann: Direct Seed Cropping Systems, February Workshops. The Steward newsletter, January 2002.
Aaron Esser & Dennis Tonks: Direct seeding issues in Lethbridge, AB, Canada. Ag Horizons newsletter, February 2002.
Dennis Pittmann: Northwest Crops, Spokane County Direct Seed Projects Spring Update. The Steward newsletter, April 2002.
Tanya Wojtowych: The Pacific Northwest Direct Seeding Association. Ag Horizons newsletter, May 2002.
Diana Roberts: First year results from the Spokane County Direct Seeding Project. Ag Horizons newsletter, May 2002.
Diana Roberts: Direct seeding tips from an Aussie farmer. Ag Horizons newsletter, July 2002.
Diana Roberts: Direct seeding tips from an Aussie farmer. October Wheat Life (publication of Washington Association of Wheat Growers.
Aaron Esser: Triallate application in direct seeded spring barley for wild oat control in northern Lincoln County. Ag Horizons newsletter, July 2002.
Dennis Pittmann: June Twilight Tours, Northwest Crops Project Update. The Steward newsletter, July 2002. Dennis Tonks, Darla Rugel, & Diana Roberts: The Wilke Direct Seeding Project. Ag Horizons newsletter, October 2002.
Dennis Pittmann: Northwest Crops and Spokane County Direct Seed Projects Fall Update. The Steward newsletter, 2002.

2001

Aaron Esser: On-farm testing – A do-it-yourself guide. Ag Horizons newsletter, March 2001. Dennis Roe: Potential benefits of corn in rotation. Ag Horizons newsletter, March 2001.
Diana Roberts: USDA-SARE grant to fund Spokane and Whitman County direct seeding projects. Ag Horizons newsletter, May 2001.

Summary of Extension programs

January to December 2004

2 Workshops, 48 participants
Project overview scheduled January 14, 2005, at PNW Direct Seed Conference, anticipating 400 participants

January to December 2003

19 Workshops – 708 participants
3 Field tours – 48 participants

January to December 2002

22 Workshops) – 689 participants
8 Field Days – 129 participants

August 2000 to December, 2001

5 Workshops – 98 participants
6 Field Days – 147 participants

Evaluations

We surveyed growers who attended workshops and tours about these on-farm direct seeding projects in 2003.

Of 70 responding growers who attended workshops on the topic, 55.7% said there was some new learning, 37.1% said there was much new learning, and 28.6% said they had used the information learned in farm decision-making.
From 26 responding growers who attended the Spokane County tour, 73.1% said there was some new learning, 23.1% said there was much new learning, and 30.8% said they had used the information in farm decision-making.
From 19 responding growers who attended the Whitman County tour, 78.9% said there was some new learning, 15.8% said there was much new learning, and 36.8% said they had used the information in farm decision-making.

Part of the emphasis of the project, especially with the Spokane cooperators, was for them to understand the basics of statistical design, in particular the importance of replicated trials. This objective came about because chemical companies tend to put out demonstration trials to compare products, but they only have one replication. They then quote these results and the apparent benefits of their products. Farmers do not necessarily understand the limitations of these types of trials, and they also make unreplicated comparisons between management techniques on their farms.

In a survey at the beginning of the project, only 1 Spokane grower out of 4 responding said that he understood “a lot” about systematic on-farm testing methods. The others said they knew “a little.” At the end of the project, 3 out of 5 (60%) of this group said they would replicate treatments in their own studies, 2 (40%) said “maybe” and none said “no.” To the question “when learning about products or variety performance at grower workshops, will you question out loud or to yourself if the data were replicated and repeatable,” 4 out of 5 (80%) responding said “yes” and 1 (20%) said “maybe.”

The Northwest Crops Project cooperators did not receive the same level of education on experimental design as their project started before this grant project. When asked the same questions, 3 out of 8 (37.5%) said they would replicate their own trials, 3 out of 8 (37.5%) said “maybe,” and 2 out of 8 (25%) said “no.” On questioning the repeatability of data, 3 out of 6 (50%) responded that they would question it, 2 out 6 (33%) said “maybe,” and 1 out 6 (17%) said “no.”

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

Economic analysis is included in the individual reports submitted as Word documents

Farmer Adoption

We reached 1,671 farmers through field tours and workshops about this project. We reached potentially 22,100 farmers through written articles about the project, which we published in ag trade magazines and in Extension and Conservation District newsletters.

The CTIC website http://www.ctic.purdue.edu/CTIC/CTIC.html reported that percentage land direct seeded in the area increased from about 6% in 1996 to 10% in 2000. Since then the adoption rate has leveled off.

Results of 2002 survey to 100 area growers with 53% response rate

Do you use direct seeding on your farm? 37___ Yes 12____ No (1 limited amt) 3 N/A
(% respondents using direct seeding ) (69.8%) (22.6%) (1.9%) (5.6%)

If yes, how much of your information on direct seeding comes from WSU Extension - for example, from the NW Direct Seeding Conference, field tours, on-farm testing projects, bulletins, news articles, e-mails lists, or one-on-one consultation with faculty?
2 (0% WSU-CE source) 5 (1-30%) 16 (31-60%) 17 (61-90%) {# direct seeding respondents}
5.0% 12.5% 40.0% 42.5% {% direct seeding respondents}

We recommend that farmers in the region who wish to transition to direct seeding read the reports from this project and use the economic spreadsheets we designed to calculate the yields they need from any new crop to ensure their rotation is profitable. We recommend that farmers try direct seeding on a small acreage initially (100 to 300 acres). However, they should use good ground so the system has the best opportunity to succeed. There is a lot of useful information on the PNW Conservation Tillage website, http://pnwsteep.wsu.edu/. They should attend the PNW Direct Seeding Conference held in January, and local Extension workshops. They should also participate in local grower discussion groups to develop a network of like-minded farmers with whom to share challenges and solutions.

Recommendations:

Areas needing additional study

  • Feedback from grower cooperators after the study revealed the following areas needed more work.

    One of the major obstacles to the advancement of direct seeding is not only gathering growers to see the advantage of the system but their landlords as well. We need some type of meetings or studies reaching the education of landlords.
    Emergence issues by variety, particularly spring crops – what genetics work best in the cold, wet environment of direct seeding?
    Herbicide use issues – are plant back and efficacy different in high residue vs. low disturbance seeding.
    I am particularly interested in learning ways to combine direct seeding with organic farming or more natural ways to solve weed and fertilizer problems.
    Keep trying to find other crops that can be raised at a profit with direct seeding.
    More work on most viable crop rotation sequences.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.