A tale of two fields

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Farm Forum

Research based information is the foundation of answers to producer’s questions in the pursuit of economically and environmentally sound agricultural production. Many of the ideas for research projects, and learning opportunities, however, come from observations by farmers themselves. Some of the most useful things I’ve learned in my Extension career have come about by spending time in the field with farmers and ranchers.

One such opportunity presented itself recently, when a farmer called about an alarming percentage (up to 30 %!) of white heads in a wheat field adjacent to a tree planting. The white heads were, of course, the result of wheat stem maggot, an insect that feeds on the wheat stem just above the highest node, cutting it off from the uptake of moisture and nutrients. The high percentage close to the tree planting was attributed to be a result of the close proximity to the grasses in the tree planting, which serve as an alternate host to the insect.

The wheat stem maggot is considered to be a sporadic pest, often causing minimal damage, which is fortunate, because there are few options available for managing the pest. Rotations that include non-host (non-grass) crops will reduce the potential for the buildup of wheat stem maggot populations. Also, control of volunteer wheat eliminates this host for insect buildup. Where practical, planting after the Hessian fly ‘fly-free’ dates will also reduce damage potential by avoiding the fly activity period in the early fall. Insecticidal control is impractical because of the difficulty in determining the optimum timing for control.

So what does this have to do with the title of this column, “A Tale of Two Fields”? That came up when the farmer stopped at an approach on the way back to his headquarters. We had been talking about no-till and its benefits, and as we looked across what has been farmed as one field for several years, he explained that the field had once been two. The fields qualified for the CRP program and were planted to grass and alfalfa in 1987. When the contracts expired 10 years later, they were both put back into production via herbicide application. For a few years after being converted to cropland, the fields were farmed separately. One field has been managed with strictly no-till practices, while shortly after the conversion to cropland, the other had been disked; once, about 15 years ago.

Even recently, when the soil was marginally dry enough to plant, the producer reports being able to plant the field that hasn’t been tilled since 1987, when the field tilled only once, about 15 years ago, was too wet on the soil surface for even a planting operation.

No-till management has a multitude of benefits, but as I and those attending the 2014 Dakota Lakes Research Farm Summer Tour learned, simply eliminating tillage isn’t the whole answer. As Jason Miller, Conservation Agronomist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), explained, the crop rotation you use, your choice of crops, incorporating cover crops and other factors all influence soil structure, soil health, water holding capacity, water infiltration rate and other characteristics of your soil and how they will affect your bottom line.

For more information on how to improve your soil health, contact your local NRCS field office, your Regional SDSU Extension Center or the NRCS “Soil Health Awareness” website: http://1.usa.gov/1sL4Emm.