Seeding, weeding service helps farmers deal with conservation crunch

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Farm Forum

Some years, there aren’t enough hours of daylight for farmers to get everything done. One farmer in southern Brown County ended in that predicament this spring. The recently expanded services provided by the South Brown Conservation District helped him out of a bind.

“Getting grass seeded on the Conservation Reserve Program acres before June 1 is really critical, and the time to get it done comes at the same time that most farmers are putting in corn and soybeans,” said Bryan Sombke, who farms near Conde. “It’s a great service and for us, irreplaceable.”

The cost to have the acreage custom seeded by South Brown Conservation District was really a no-brainer, Sombke said. According to the South Brown website (southbrowncd.org), in-county rental rates for a tractor, seed drill and operator are $25 per acre for CRP land.

Sombke explained that, without the help, they would have had to get it done themselves. And that meant probably not getting the seeding done until mid-June. They spent $19,000 for the seed for nearly 300 acres, Sombke said. If the grass would have failed, that would have meant that the grass would need to be reseeded next spring and another $19,000 spent for seed.

“I don’t think many farmers realize that South Brown does seeding,” Sombke said. “And NRCS does a lot to help us figure out the programs. They told us what the programs are and how those programs can benefit the farm.”

In times of low commodity prices, the Sombke family decided that putting marginal alkali land into CRP was the way to go. The land produced 120 bushels of corn to the acre. With corn at $3 a bushel and inputs at $400 an acre, it makes more sense to take the payment for CRP.

“If we had $7 corn, it would make sense to take a profit off the ground,” Sombke said. “At these prices, CPR is the best choice.”

“Putting the ground into sod for 15 years will improve it immensely,” Sombke said. “A lot of farmers aren’t aware that these programs exist. With the way the prices are heading, it could help a lot of them.”

Many times farmers realize they need to get weed clipping done, but other things get in the way. Sombke said some look at weed patches and say, “Ah, it will be fine.” Sombke thinks with a weed-clipping service offered by South Brown, it’s more likely farmers will make the phone call to control the weeds. It really helped the Sombke family out to have 140 acres clipped this spring.

While many farmers are pulling out shelterbelts and planting crops, the Sombkes are putting about 30 acres into trees at six or seven sites. “We’re trying to put back as much as we can,” Sombke said. “The trees are good for the deer, pheasants and other wildlife.”

Expanding services

“Many people don’t realize all the services provided by the conservation district,” South Brown Conservation District Manager Diane Spitzer said. “For most, if they know about the Conservation District, it’s connected with tree planting. We need and would like to plant more trees, especially to replace some of the older tree belts that have reached their lifespan and are being torn out.”

Spitzer said Cameron Lux was hired as the South Brown Conservation District technician.

“We saw a need to help get more conservation on the ground,” she said. “By hiring Cameron, we’re able to fulfill that need by providing new services to help producers during their busy times.”

With assistance from the local chapters of Pheasants Forever and Ducks Unlimited, the district purchased a tractor and rotary mower this past spring. The district now offers full-service seeding which includes the technician, tractor and no-till drill. Weed clipping is another option provided to producers. In addition, Lux can deliver and pick up the rental no-till drill for those wishing to seed their own acres, Spitzer said.

Lux said he’s been surprised at the demand. There is a window of time for dormant seeding this fall and another window in the spring to get the grasses planted.

Farmers need to do the site preparation specific to grass seeding. The South Brown equipment can also be used for custom seeding of food plots.

Whatever option a producer wants to utilize for seeding — CRP, Wetland Reserve Program or custom acres — South Brown can order the grass seed or cover crop seed and deliver it with either the full service or the rental drill.

Timing

With work dependent on the weather, farmers often struggle to get the tasks done in a timely manner on conservation acres.

“There are a lot of landowners with CRP without the time and equipment to fulfill program requirements,” Jaimie Rindels, NRCS conservationist said. “Regulations for CPR indicate that the field needs to be seeded at the beginning of their contracts and disturbed once in the middle of the contract. It is a large issue, and these services provide a local option for some landowners to get it done.”

South Brown board chairman Dale Washnok emphasized that the district doesn’t want to compete with those in the custom business.

With marginal land being worked, soil conditions and weather play a big role as to when the farmer can get in the field.

“Just when I think I’m caught up, I get a whole new pile of paper,” Lux said. “The word is slowly spreading that we are offering this service. We have the rental drill, and once that goes out in the field, we get repeat customers. Many people who have no idea that we can do this for them.”

“I think it’s working great,” Jaimie Rindels, NRCS district conservationist, said. “When we’re in the process of working with contracts, landowners will often say, ‘How am I going to get this done?’ The two services provided by the conservation district are great options for them.”

As fall creeps closer, weed control is a focus with Lux running the mower to clip weeds. He’s out in fields tackling anything that has a requirement on weed control such as CRP. Knocking down the weeds gives the grass an opportunity to get some sun and grow, Lux said.

“There are times to get those weeds handled, especially before the annual flush of seed,” Lux said. “The weeds may or may not be noxious but they need to get handled, especially in the new CRP seeding. Besides, it’s a service to neighbors to get those weeds handled.”

Change in farming

Things have changed a lot since the 1970s when Washnok was first on the board. The big focus then was on generating income from planting tree belts and shelterbelts. Emphasis was on soil and erosion control.

“Now marginal land is put in CRP,” Washnok said. “We’re still planting trees, but it’s not the big ticket item that it was then.“

In 2011, the South Brown Conservation planted only 18 acres of trees. Since then there has been a gradual increase. As a result, the district decided to diversify their services.

Connection to wildlife

Having well-cared-for CRP is beneficial for the land as well as hunters.

The Sombkes and many farmers are very interested in increasing pheasant habitat.

“Habitat has been decimated, and there are spots in Brown County where you can’t see a pheasant,” Sombke said. “Since we have a hunting lodge, we love to see the wildlife but we’re also concerned for the soil.”

“We have to ensure that we have a good impact on hunters when they are in the fields,” Lux said. “We can do that by ensuring the fields aren’t weed-filled A lot of economic activity is generated throughout the county by hunting.”

Landowners do get partial reimbursement for the grass seed, seeding operation and clipping. The amount of cost-share depends on the conservation program, Rindels said.

South Brown has also launched a Facebook page to provide updates on tree sales, planting, mowing and other conservation practices.

“We’re hoping to attract those who use social media to keep them up-to-date and interact with them,” Spitzer said. “It’s a quick way to put a bug in their ear and keep us in mind.”

Clipping the culprits

The worst weeds that Lux sees are Canada thistle, sow thistle, bull thistle. Sometimes the patches are over a hill and out of sight, out of mind. By cutting the thistles before they go to seed, it will keep them from spreading across the quarter or to the neighbor’s field. “It will make everyone around you happy,” Lux said.

Although those working for South Brown and NRCS would love to see more trees planted, they realize it’s not a reality. CRP can be established on an acreage as small as half an acre. Having someone like Lux who is out on farms can help with planning shelterbelts around feedlots or farm sites, too.

Washnok said that maintaining perennial grasses takes more management than a crop like beans.

“Farming is a very humbling occupation,” Washnok said. “You think you have it figured out, and next year there is a new problem. You can’t just go in and spray the weeds to have control. Especially with alfalfa, a farmer has to keep looking all the time. It’s very humbling.”

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To contact South Brown regarding services, call the office at 605-226-3360 ext. 3, and ask District Technician Cameron Lux. Visit the South Brown Conservation District’s website at southbrowncd.org or their Facebook page.