Narrow Rows & No-Till
As he gazes toward the southern horizon, Bob Barnes can distinguish the irrigated cropping region bordering the South Platte River of northeastern Colorado. Edible beans, corn, sugarbeets, onions, potatoes and other vegetable crops dot the well-watered landscape.
Barnes, however, is about as bona fide a dryland producer as one can be. His farm, lying just east of the Rocky Mountain foothills, typically attracts a paltry 10 to 11 inches of annual precipita-tion. Wheat and fallow have comprised its standard cropping formula since Barnes’ grandfather homesteaded near Nunn around the turn of the century.
Barnes says he has “spent most of my life trying to keep the dirt from blowing,” running the gamut of soil conservation approaches over the course of his own five-decade career: from 1940s-era conventional farming to blade plows; on to stubble mulching and, later, contour farming and terraces; back to block farming — and during the past decade, chem fallow no-till production in a strip-crop pattern. Within the past several years, he also has worked oil sunflower into his no-till rotation.
The Weld County producer keeps his sunflower inputs simple and inexpensive: he applies a burndown herbicide, he plants, and he harvests. Insects are rarely an economic problem, so he’s usually able to avoid treatment. To date, Barnes has not fertilized his sunflower, opting to rely upon residual nitrogen and other nutrients left by the preceding wheat crop. That could change, though, as he moves toward higher yield goals.
Bob Barnes’ sunflower planter is an unconventional one for his corner of the High Plains: a modified Flexi-Coil Model 800 chisel plow trailing behind a Flexi-Coil 1610 air cart. Originally purchased for drilling wheat, the northern Colorado producer later modified the system to seed sunflower into his tall no-till wheat stubble.
Among the 36-foot chisel plow/ planter’s key no-till features, Barnes says, are its extended-height shanks (for better trash clearance), smooth coulters (for cutting through trash), floating press wheels and “stealth” furrow openers.
Originally fitted with 16-inch sweeps and coil packers, the chisel plow — whose bar and carrying wheels are off an old Flex King seeder — underwent a no-till transformation in Barnes’ farm shop. He installed the trash-cutting coulters in front of the seed openers, removed the original 16-inch sweeps and substituted sets of the Flexi-Coil “Stealth” openers. The openers allow him to handle heavy trash conditions with a minimum of soil disturbance and also give Barnes the option of placing fertilizer either below or to the side of the seed.
Since they float independently of the chisel plow’s cutting depth, the press wheels achieve more-consistent seed placement depth and seed-to-soil contact. “The wheels don’t carry the plow; they’re just floating back there,” Barnes points out. “That way, they don’t affect whether — or how — the plow is going into the ground.”
Barnes had been planting his sunflower in 24-inch rows by corking every other row on the Flexi-Coil unit’s distribution manifold. Toward the end of the 1994 planting season, however, he custom drilled some sunflower for a neighbor who wanted 12-inch spacings. The success of that field prompted Barnes to seed his own 900 acres of ’95 oil-type ’flowers in 12-inch rows as well.
He aims for a seed drop of around 16,000. While typically shooting for a late May/early June sunflower planting date, he found himself in an atypically wet June in 1995 and thus didn’t finish seeding until July 10. The crop then went without another drop of moisture until a snow-storm struck the immature ’flowers during the third week of September.
But Mother Nature’s vagaries have not dampened Bob Barnes’ enthusiasm for no-till ’flowers — or for his customized seeding system. Like other no-till sunflower producers, his wish list includes a postemergence broadleaf herbicide to help control problem weeds such as kochia and Russian thistle. In the meantime, he relies on the preplant burndown to keep the wheat stubble as clean as possible at seeding time. Though there’s some weed suppression from the crop canopy in the 12-inch rows, Barnes concedes weeds remain his primary no-till sunflower challenge.
It’s a challenge Bob Barnes believes can be managed on his farm. But if not, he says he’ll continue growing sunflower under a modified reduced-tillage scheme. “That’s the beautiful thing about this chisel plow/air seeder,” he says. “If all else fails, it can become my tillage tool. I can put on the chisels or sweeps and go back to doing some tillage.”
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