No Place for No-Till
So you make a living selling no-till row-crop planters? If so,
don't waste Stacy Argo's time - or your own.
Argo's family, whose farming operations are based at Princeton,
Calif., has been growing hybrid sunflower seed for more than two
decades. Out of the several hundred dollars he spends to produce each
acre of sunflower, a sizable chunk goes strictly into ground
preparation. His crews will conduct upwards of 11 or 12 preplant field
operations - most of them in the fall.
Why so many?
Part of the reason revolves around the types of alluvial soils
found in this part of California - frequently high in clay content,
often quite variable from spot to spot within even small fields. If
growers aren't breaking up compacted areas with tillage, they may be
responding to the concrete-like surface layer resulting from heavy
winter rains. Since freezing temperatures are almost unheard of in the
Sacramento Valley, soils do not mellow like those located in colder
climates with their freeze-thaw cycles.
The intensive nature of farming in the area - high yields on small
fields - also plays into the why's and how's of seedbed preparation.
"We have good ground; but the ground basically just 'holds up the
plant,' " Argo quips in reference to the extensive tillage, fertilizer
and irrigation inputs he provides for each crop.
To illustrate, Argo explains how he would prepare a corn field
being planted to sunflower the following spring:
First, the corn stubble would be removed by chopping, burning or a
double incorporation with a disk. That's followed by two deep-rip
passes to break up compaction and enhance water infiltration - and then
another disking to break up clods. "I'd probably 'cook plow' (a type of
chisel plow) to stir up some of the looser soil with the clods," Argo
continues. "Then I'd disk two more times with a Schmizer roller
attachment to break it real fine."
That would be succeeded by at least two passes at different angles
with a tri-plane to re-level the field. Then the field is laser-leveled
to make sure it irrigates properly.
The next step is to form the seedbeds and irrigation furrows and
prepare ditches on field headlands (grading, drag scraping, etc.) for
the next spring's irrigation water.
So much for fall's work!
Over-winter maintenance consists of one or two burndown treatments
with Roundup or another herbicide to control volunteers and any other
weeds that have emerged. "We want to keep those beds as clean as
possible - absolutely weed-free - so when the planting window opens in
the spring, we can get in right away and plant to moisture," Argo
Late March/early April is the prime sunflower planting period in
the northern Sacramento Valley. So as the latter half of March
approaches, the Argo crew conducts two solo cultivations, followed by a
third cultivation during application of the preplant herbicide (Prowl,
Treflan or Sonalan). Those passes also reshape the 30-inch-wide seedbed
while firming irrigation furrows. "Then we'll apply starter fertilizer
- and plant," Argo states.
That's an overview of the seedbed preparation regimen - if Mother
Nature cooperates. Heavy winter rains or flooding can necessitate
redoing several of these operations. Or, should hard rains fall just
prior to planting, the beds might "melt down." So after the field
dries, they'll need to be reformed and the irrigation furrows cultivated
After such an exhaustive ground preparation schedule, in-season crop
management would seem relatively simple - except for the irrigation
Crop irrigation is essential in this climate, where it seldom rains
between April and October. Nearly all sunflower fields are irrigated
via a gravity system.
Argo prefers to plant to moisture rather than "irrigate up." Plant
stands and final yields typically are better, "if we can plant to
moisture and then irrigate at about 70-percent emergence to bring up the
rest of the crop," he says. Insufficient winter moisture sometimes
necessitates a preirrigation, however.
The early season irrigation is followed by one or two
cultivations. Should the preplant herbicide not give satisfactory weed
control, a hand-weeding crew will be sent through the field.
Argo irrigates his sunflower fields between five to eight times
per season. That's above-average for the area, but his soils don't hold
water well and he doesn't want to risk moisture stress. Also, he's
fortunate to have deep, high-volume wells that put out a lot of water.
"So I don't hesitate to spend money on water. I'd rather not stress the
crop," he emphasizes.
Other than an aerial treatment for sunflower head moth if
warranted, the next field operation will be to take out the male plant
rows after pollination and before they can set seed. (Argo uses either
a four-wheeler or a small Willys jeep - both sporting front-end
"battering" attachments - to flatten the males.) By mid-August, the
physiologically mature females are ready to be defoliated with either
sodium chlorate or paraquat to hasten harvest and - just as importantly
- ensure plant uniformity throughout the entire field.
The sunflower combine is still working at one end of the field when
a flail chopper and disk are pulled into the other end, starting the
entire process all over for the following crop. "We have to get the
ground prep done in the fall and have the field furrowed and ready for
next year's crop," Argo observes. "At least that's the right way to do
it here." - Don Lilleboe
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