Agronomy Library > Soil Conservation

Direct Seeding Leads To More Changes - Robert Weisgerber, Schuler, AB
Author: Helen McMenanin
Date Created: April 04, 2005
Last Reviewed: April 04, 2005

The benefits of zero-till are usually listed as moisture conservation, reduced erosion risk and lower fuel costs. Direct seeding, then continuous cropping has allowed Robert Weisgerber to spend less time on the tractor and more time working on ways to do things better. He's growing crops that allow him to spread his marketing and production risk as well as his workload. He's also developed crop sequences that minimize weeds and diseases and use as much of his sparse moisture as possible. 

Robert Weisgerber in his sunflowers

Weisgerber farms at Schuler, north of Medicine Hat, the heart of the Palliser Triangle. It's traditionally ranching and strip-farming country, but today he grows crops that would have been unthinkable in the area 10 or 15 years ago. "Seeding corner-to-corner was a huge advance for this part of the world," he says. "Once we didn't have to worry so much about erosion because direct seeding allowed us to move into continuous cropping, we were able to farm bigger fields. That made the big difference. Once I got away from having to summer fallow or chem-fallow those narrow strips, I had a lot more time to find new things and try some out. "Not everything I've tried has worked, but some have been good. One of the successful changes has been to warm season crops – millet, corn and sunflowers. They need warm soil to germinate, so the ideal seeding time is much later than for cereals or peas. "That later seeding date is the big advantage for me. In this area, it's critical to get most crops in early to take advantage of early season moisture. Farming on my own, it's really tough getting everything in on time. And, something always sells when you have a variety of crops to market." 

Weisgerber's basic crop sequence is spring cereal-winter wheat-warm season crop-legume. The warm season crop is most often sunflowers, but he also grows millet and corn. The legume is either peas or lentils. The fall of 2004 was too wet to allow Weisgerber to seed any winter wheat, but he'll seed it again this fall if the weather cooperates at all. "In the late '80s, every time we tried winter wheat, it froze out in spring," he says. "Now, we have better varieties and better seeding equipment so we're able to provide more protection for the seedlings. I like Bellatrix for this area and you have a choice of selling into the feed or the milling markets. "Winter wheat helps spread the workload, too. If I can possibly make time to seed it during or after harvest, I do." Moisture is almost always in short supply in his area, so Weisgerber continually tries to balance soil moisture with the demands of each crop. "Winter wheat isn't using moisture from mid-July on. That means the soil can store any rain we get, building up moisture for the next year's crop." 

Weisgerber checks soil moisture

Sunflowers fit well after winter wheat as their deep roots allow them to take advantage of that extra moisture. Most of the diseases and weeds associated with them are different from those of other crops in the rotation. Sunflower's ability to stand in the field if there are delays at harvest isn't usually something Weisgerber considers. He does find the late seeding date an advantage, farming by himself. "Late seeding suits them – late for me is mid- to late May," he says. "You can seed 'flowers into moisture, even if it's quite deep. Sunflower never seems to give you a huge crop on dryland but there's always something there." Weisgerber grows black oil sunflower seeds for birdseed. Although they're an oilseed, the only plant that crushes sunflower seed is in North Dakota, too far away for economic shipping. Some sunflower seeds are sold as a feed supplement for dairy cows. Sunflowers cover most of Weisgerber's warm season acres, almost a quarter of his land. He also grows some proso millet for birdseed and a little corn for his small cattle herd. 

"Corn can do quite well, if we have the moisture," he says. About five years ago, he'd been planning to try a few acres of corn, but abandoned the idea because of drought. The drought was severe, but when it finally broke, 30 months later, fields were flooded. By July, Weisgerber still had some land he hadn't been able to get on. He seeded the corn. "It grew pretty well, but the cobs didn't ripen," he says. "When the cows came back from pasture in October, they headed into the corn field and I didn't see them again for a month. They rustled in there for a long time." 

Peas or lentils follow the warm season grass or sunflowers. Lentils go on the cleanest fields because the selection of herbicides for them is more limited than that for peas. Herbicide residues can be a problem under low rainfall conditions, but Weisgerber turns this into an advantage. He uses Edge for broadleaf weed control in sunflowers and hopes some residue will remain the next spring. The following legume tolerates the chemical and benefits from weed suppression. He may be able to put the same principle to work in his cereals by growing Clearfield wheat after peas sprayed with Pursuit. The wheat can tolerate any residues that damage most wheat varieties and he might avoid a broadleaf spray operation. He'd reserve this system for land that's had millet or corn as its warm season crop to avoid using Odyssey twice in a four-year rotation. Weisgerber doesn't worry about grouping all his cereals together. "For years and years people round here grew nothing but cereals," he says. "It wasn't ideal, but it worked for them. I'm not worried about growing similar crops one behind the other." 

He began using "stacked rotations" after listening to Dwayne Beck, of Dakota Lakes Research Farm at Pierre, South Dakota. The idea behind this approach is that maximizing the time a field is out of a particular crop is the best way to reduce the levels of disease organisms and the weeds that thrive with the crop. According to Beck, two years in one crop isn't long enough for weed and disease pressure to build to significant levels, but two or three years out of similar crops is long enough to cut down populations of disease organisms. 

The worst pest in Weisgerber's area is probably sawfly. He has had problems in some fields, but with broadleaf crops and AC Abbey, a sawfly-tolerant variety, he sees fewer cut stalks in his fields than in those of neighbors who use more traditional rotations. He may also gain an edge over the pest by seeding some of his spring wheat in fall. He tried dormant seeding canola some years ago, but it didn't do as well as spring-seeded crop. Last year, he seeded spring wheat at the end of October. It grew and matured ahead of spring-seeded wheat and just behind winter wheat. "It headed out well ahead of spring-seeded spring wheat and was ready for harvest sooner, just after the winter wheat," he says. "I think this may be a way to spread the workload and avoid pests and diseases that can attack spring and winter wheat. "Wheat's a tougher seed than canola, and it's down deeper in the ground. I seeded at about an inch and a half with good to seed-to-soil contact and the crop has looked good all year. This looks like something I might keep on doing." 

Diverse rotations offer more than marketing advantages, according to Weisgerber. "I'm quite sure this type of rotation is improving the health of my soil," he says. "I like to try new things. If you're not trying something different, you can get stuck in a pretty good rut. In a rut, you never know whether you could be doing a whole lot better – for your land, for your business and for yourself."