Agronomy Library > Soil Conservation

Chem-fallow, Direct Seeding Cuts Input Costs - Terry Doran, Bow Island, AB
Author: Helen McMenamin
Date Created: July 16, 2003
Last Reviewed: July 16, 2003

Direct seeding and continuous cropping don’t have to go together, according to Terry Doran. The Bow Island farmer doesn’t believe the potential returns from dropping fallow from his cropping system are worth the increased risk and problems.

“On average, I should be able to produce 50% more,” he says. “But, those extra bushels aren’t cheap. They can be very expensive in this country.”
Doran sees commodity production as the only future for his farming operation, but says he must be a low cost producer. Zero-till crop-fallow helps him achieve that.
“Seeding half the land, I can still do all my work myself. If I cropped all my land, I’d have to add pulses and oilseeds to my rotation and I’d need to hire help. Then, along come some drought years and you’re going backwards.
Doran has kept records of growing season rainfall since 1982. The totals range from 2.62 inches in 1984 to 14.49 inches in 1993. Even in relatively wet years though, moisture doesn’t arrive until well into June, so moisture stored during the fallow period is essential to get the crop started.
“People have short memories,” he says. “They forget this country can get dry and stay dry. From ’91 to 2000, we raised our best crops ever. You couldn’t go wrong seeding every acre every year. Then, in 2001, we had less than fallow the previous year.”

Terry & Jackie Doran 

Making the first sprayer pass early –shortly after seeding – is his key to good weed control.
“When you spray is as important as what you spray,” he says. “In crop or on chem.-fallow, weed control is better when weeds are small. “
“When I used to go from one cropped strip to the next without turning off the sprayer, I noticed the ends of the fallow strips where I’d done that stayed much cleaner all year. So, I started making my first chem.-fallow pass earlier than I had been previously.”

Checking chemfallow for small weeds

“Spraying early, before you can see the weeds above the stubble, half a liter of Roundup works well. It keeps the cost of chemical for that first pass to $4 or less per acre.”
After an early pass with Roundup, Doran finds the fallow strips stay clean for a long time. He uses Rustler, at a cost of about $6, for a second pass. He always plans on a third pass, with Roundup, either just before or just after harvest.
“Chem-fallow costs less and can do as good a job as tillage,” he says. “Especially if you don’t wait too long. You need to be out there paying attention, so you can catch weeds when they’re small and you don’t need a high rate of chemical or the most expensive chemical. The time I spend on my motorbike checking weeds is an investment in clean fields.”
The weed profile has changed since Doran began direct seeding. Dandelions have been a problem, but he’s able to control them with Ally because chemical residue is not a concern with his wheat-fallow-durum system.
Sprayer acres add up to five times Doran’s crop acreage most years, although he has been able to cut out wild oat control on some of his cropped land. He thinks even that much spraying compares favourably with tillage in terms of cash and working time. Using traditional Summerfallow, Doran usually went over his fields three to five times, sometimes as many as six passes to keep weeds under control. That would cost more than his maximum chemical costs of $14 or $15 dollars.
“I can spray 640 acres in an easy day,” he says. “You couldn’t work that much land even in a long day. And, I can cover over 700 acres with one tank of fuel in my 140-horse tractor. The big tractor under load would take much more. And, I’m not losing any moisture from the soil.”
Doran didn’t start direct seeding until the early ‘90s after air-drills became available. His heavy land has only a short window of ideal seeding conditions, so on-row packing is very important to him. He saw too many misses with air-seeders because of uneven packing. He uses a Flexi-Coil 5000 single shoot and likes the job it does. He switched from a knife to a 3-inch opener so he can single shoot without burning the seed with fertilizer.
“I didn’t want a double shoot because I didn’t intend to continuous crop and don’t want to fracture the soil below the seedbed,” Doran says. “With a 3-inch spread, I can put 30 or 40 lbs of nitrogen with my seed. And the Gen openers don’t move much dirt. I like them, I’m on my second set.”
Handling trash is a different game with a crop-fallow system, says Doran. He always believed in spreading straw and chaff, but now he cuts his crop short so the drill runs through it.
“I spend far more time checking fields now than I did when I tilled fallow,” he says. “In those days, we checked the summerfallow as we drove down the road at 50 miles an hour. If it was starting to look green, it was time to go over it again. On a wet year, we would count tillage passes by the kinks in the kochia plants.”
“Tall stubble looks great for its first winter,” he says. “It’s by the second winter, most of it is flattened, so it doesn’t catch much snow. In spring, with long straw lying down, the air-drill just fills up like a rake.”
“Now, I cut as if I were swathing, 8 or 9 inches high. The short stubble stands up better through two winters so it catches more snow the second winter. It’s still standing that second spring, so seeding goes well and I get a nice protected stand.”

Residue protecting small wheat seedlings

Soil changes take longer to show than the cash and labor savings of zero-till. Because of his crop-fallow system, Doran has only direct-seeded five crops on any piece of land.

“I haven’t seen much change in the soil yet,” he says. “And the last couple of years we weren’t putting a huge amount of material back into the soil, but perhaps we’re starting to get away from the crusting and cracking we used to see on this heavy land.

“For me, the big advantage of zero-till crop-fallow is that I can raise my crops cheaper. My biggest saving is in machine replacement and repair. I can afford to take a few less dollars because my inputs are lower. And, I can keep up with the work on my own.
“I am not advocating this system for everyone. We all have different objectives for our operations, but this happens to work for me.”