One Of The Nation’s Largest Farming Operations
Diversifies Further With No-Till Sunflower
James K. Hitch would likely be amazed by the farming operation that stands today, 117 years after he first broke virgin prairie in the Oklahoma panhandle. The operation that bears his namesake, Hitch Enterprises Inc., is now one of the largest, most diversified agricultural companies in the nation.
Now headed by the fourth and fifth Hitch generations, Paul and sons Jason and Cris, Hitch Enterprises Inc. of Guymon, Okla. has expanded into many phases of the agricultural industry including Hitch Feedyards, one feedlot in Kansas and two in Oklahoma with a combined capacity of about 200,000 head; Hitch Cattle Company, a cattle buying operation; Hitch Commodities Inc., which deals in hedging and risk management; Hitch Pork Producers; Hitch Ag Credit Corporation; Hitch Ranch, a 200-head commercial cow herd; and Hitch Farms Inc. a 10,000-acre crop and haying operation. The total operation has over 400 employees, with nine that focus on the cropping operation.
Curtis Raines, an Aberdeen, S.D. native, manages the approximately 4,500 acres of irrigated and non-irrigated cropland which includes hard red winter wheat, corn, and sunflower. In addition, there is hayland including alfalfa to help supply the three feedlots.
The cropping enterprise has 47 irrigation circles, each center pivot irrigating 120 acres. There are 24 irrigated circles of corn, half of which is grown for silage and half for grain to supply the Hitch feedlots. This year, the farm is also trying two to three circles of irrigated oats for the feedlots.
In the last few years, Raines has been producing less sorghum and corn and more sunflower. Crop rotation is corn and wheat, which is doublecropped with sunflower. “Basically I raise three crops in two years,” says Raines. “It’s been working good the last four years.”
He first grew sunflower in 1999, experimenting with about 800 irrigated acres. Last year Hitch Farms grew 500 acres of dryland sunflower and 1,200 acres of irrigated ‘flowers. This year he has 2,300 acres of sunflower, all planted to NuSun hybrids. Sunflower has worked well for doublecropping, says Raines. “One advantage is that it’s a shorter season crop. In 70 days, the crop is made, while corn takes four months.”
The sunflower has performed better than sorghum in terms of yield and net return. . For example, he points to dryland sunflower last year, some of which yielded 1,100 pounds/acre despite receiving less than a half an inch of rain since planting. That compared to drought-stressed milo, most of which wasn’t harvested. He also cut dryland wheat that ran as high as 45 bushels/acre in the drought-stressed 2000 cropping season.
This year, Raines is harvesting irrigated sunflower averaging around 2,600 pounds, and as high as 3,000 pounds. “Good ‘flowers this year. Some guys say it’s some of the heaviest they’ve ever hauled.” Raines’ dryland sunflower was plagued by dry conditions again this year. Still, he points out that dryland sunflower following wheat is running as high as 1,000 pounds, when dryland milo in the area “burned up.”
He credits no-till as the saving grace. “Whenever you till that field, you take about an inch of rain from the soil profile. These soils hold about 2.3” to 2.5” of water per foot, so we can store a lot of water. It’s all about moisture management in this country.”
Raines first experimented with no-till five years ago, and this year marks the fourth that Hitch Farms has been 100% no-till. He was hesitant to try it at first. Indeed, no-till does require more attention to land management, and the soil takes longer to warm up at planting. “It’s a change in thinking and the way you’ve normally done things. It’s hard in the spring when you’re itching to do something, when the farmers around you start going and you’re still at home.”
However, no-till has proven not only to save moisture, but money. Raines estimates that before they started using no-till, Hitch Farms would put about 1,000 hours on each of the five tractors in the crop enterprise, making six to eight trips around the field disking, ripping, cultivating, and burning stubble. Now they put on about 1,500 hours on the five tractors, combined. “I saved about $55,000 in fuel costs the first year we no-tilled, not counting sweeps and parts that we didn’t have to buy,” he says.
Hitch Farms plants sunflower into no-till wheat stubble, which Raines calls a perfect no-till environment. “I wish I could plant all my no-till crops into wheat stubble,” he says. The only tilling Hitch Farms does now is disking behind silage cutters. They’re going to try strip tilling this fall on some wheat stubble, however. “Maybe it’ll get the ground to warm up a little quicker in the spring,” he says. (For more information on strip tilling, see the article in the December, 2000 issue of The Sunflower, which can be found online at www.sunflowernsa.com. Click on “The Sunflower Magazine,” then “archives.”)
Raines likes the fact that of his irrigated crops, sunflower can yield the most on the least amount of water. “Wheat will make it on whatever water it has. If you don’t have water to make the corn crop it’ll dry up.”
In 1999, Raines had one irrigated sunflower field, doublecropped on wheat stubble and planted on July 25, yield 2,000 pounds/acre. “But I wouldn’t advise planting that late every year,” he says. Last year’s irrigated sunflower also yielded an average 2,000 pounds/acre, following an irrigated wheat crop that yielded close to 100 bushels/acre. This year Raines planted some of his sunflower acreage a bit earlier this year, around mid June, replacing corn on six irrigation circles. He’s experimented with several hybrids from different companies, growing what yields best in the Oklahoma panhandle. Raines usually plants a hybrid with a maturity date of about 80 days. “There are shorter maturities out there, but they don’t produce as well,” he says.
Hitch Farms uses a high performance liquid fertilizer at planting for sunflower and other crops in rotation. The liquid formulation includes micronutrients and a lower salt index, which allows it to be placed within the seed slice.
Since Hitch Farms has been growing sunflower for only a few years, there’s been a learning curve. Early on they found that in-row cultivation didn’t work the best for weed control. “I think the first year we raised more pigweed than sunflower,” Raines quips. A 12-row hooded sprayer—which Raines and his crew built by modifying an 8-row sprayer—has proved more successful in controlling weeds in sunflower. They use Prowl for pre-emergence weed control, and apply a tank mix with Roundup between the rows when sunflower is about knee high. “Then the crop will take off and pretty much control weeds by itself,” says Raines.
Wes Robbins serves as Raines’ agronomic consultant. Robbins is a noted conservationist who worked for over 30 years at the USDA’s Natural Resources and Conservation Service in Burlington, Colo. He retired from the NRCS in 1997, and now has his own crops consulting business in Guymon.
It was Robbins who encouraged Raines to begin using gypsum blocks in all of Hitch Farms’ irrigation circles to help determine when watering is needed. The blocks require additional management, but are worth it, says Raines. “Now I know my moisture situation year round. I know when to pre-water where and when.” Hitch Farms irrigates crops at critical development periods, but not if the gypsum blocks indicate watering isn’t needed. Hitch Farms still irrigates to get wheat started in the fall, but has stopped watering wheat for grazing, because of the higher energy costs. Turning the water off at the right time also results in less soil compaction, Robbins notes.
Robbins monitors moisture readings and interprets the results with Raines once a week. The gypsum blocks, attached to wire leads, are inserted in the soil at four depth levels in the field. The wire leads attach to an electronic meter, which reads the moisture content of the soil at the four depths. The buried gypsum blocks take in and give off moisture at about the same rate as the surrounding soil, so when the meter is attached to the gypsum blocks, they provide an accurate reading of how much moisture is in the soil profile. The Gypsum blocks need to be replaced each year and sell for around $6.00 each. The electronic meters sell for about $150 each.
With Robbins help, Hitch Farms is also irrigating crops more efficiently. Sprinkler nozzles are now set at a lower pump volume of 500 gallons/minute, which helps conserve water (and costs) yet allows the amount of water needed across Hitch Farms’ irrigated crop acreage, when the water is needed. Thus, by using less water per acre, they’re able to water more acres.
They’ve lowered irrigation nozzles to about 12 to 15 inches above the ground canopy. This reduces water loss from wind and evaporation, and helps direct the water to where it’s needed. Boom backs have also been set behind the wheels of the irrigation sprinklers, so the wheels are always running on dry ground.
Robbins says the key to efficient irrigation is timing. Thus at Hitch Farms, the center pivots used on corn for silage are turned off after the irrigated corn is cut for silage at the end of July, and the water is then used for irrigating sunflower. “When we plant we’ll water the sunflower about an inch, which will carry the crop to about mid August,” says Raines. They’ll water ‘flowers again at bud and bloom, when the plants are most sensitive to moisture stress. They’ll usually put down a total of 5 to 7 inches of water on sunflower during the course of the growing season, more in drought conditions. “If you can get sunflower up and going, they’re hard to kill,” says Robbins. “If we can keep them going until rain comes or there’s available water, we’ll get a crop.” – Tracy Sayler
More Info on Gypsum Blocks
Your local USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service office is a good place to start for more information on gypsum blocks. Crops consultant Wes Robbins, an expert on using gypsum blocks, is also a good resource. He may be reached by phone at 580-338-8443. The Kansas State University Extension publication “Scheduling Irrigations by
Electrical Resistance Blocks” (L901) can be found on the Internet at
http://www.oznet.ksu.edu/library/ageng2/l901.pdf. The Colorado State University Extension publication “Estimating Soil Moisture” (No. 4.700) can be found online at
http://www.ext.colostate.edu/pubs/crops/04700.pdf. Adobe Acrobat Reader is needed to read the portable document format (PDF), which is growing in use. The software can be downloaded free from the web site, http://www.adobe.com/products/acrobat/readermain.html.
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