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Patchwork Planting

Patchwork-plant less expensive crops across fields with poor soil.

In April, while his neighbors planted wheat, Randy Neva crisscrossed his Kensal, North Dakota, acreage with a John Deere no-till drill filled with barley seed as he looked for areas with the poorest soil. Instead of spending $200 to $350 per acre for soybean or corn seed, herbicides, and fertilizer, he spent approximately $25 per acre for seed and fuel on about 50 acres.

“It’s better to not spend money on something that won’t grow anything. If I don’t lose money, it’s like saving. I don’t get anything back, so I don’t put the investment into it,” Neva says. With 30 years of experience farming with his father, James, and his brother, Tim, he knows which areas drown out or are so saline-saturated that they yield very little to nothing.

Planting options

The Nevas have been dabbling with barley for about five years at the encouragement of Lee Briese, an agronomist consultant with Centrol Inc.

“Lee has long forewarned us of weeds and salinity problems and that we are wasting our money planting crops,” Neva says. “We’ve got certain areas that are pure white with salinity that won’t even grow weeds anymore.”

Barley is the only crop that will grow in some saline areas, and this year Neva planted it around the farm’s slough borders and wherever he saw soil tinged with white.

It set back planting a couple of days, but by seeding barley first, he could drive anywhere he wanted. He planted a normal rate of 50 to 60 pounds of barley seed per acre in plots as small as 1 acre, with many averaging 5 acres.

It did make planting crops less convenient, he admits, since he had to swing around the barley-planted acres or raise the planter until he got over them. He had to do this whenever he sprayed his soybean or corn crops so he didn’t kill out the barley.

The extra work is the reason many farmers continue to plant row crops in areas that won’t produce, Briese says. With lower commodity prices and high input costs, however, more farmers are choosing to patchwork-plant less expensive crops such as barley, rye, and winter camelina.

“Barley is a cheap option and can be planted anytime you can get in there. Even planted as late as July 10, it will make grain if it’s the right fall. Or, you can get hay or at least a cover crop to control some of the weeds,” Briese says.

Soil Challenges

Farms along the Highway 281 corridor in North Dakota face similar challenges as the Neva farm, Briese says.

“They have a lot of salinity and areas that drown out often. This has been going on for years,” he says. “I’ve been trying to get farmers to stop farming it just because it looks good in the spring. They should grow strips of barley or grass or anything different just because marginal soil is a money pit. They are kochia preserves since often that’s all that will grow there.”

Instead of allowing Mother Nature to take over with the noxious weed, Briese encourages his clients to use no-till and to keep the soil covered. In areas where the salinity isn’t too high, winter rye works well. It overwinters, competes well against weeds, and has roots that create better infiltration to take up excess water. Neva seeded beans straight into it this spring and killed the rye with Roundup.

“I’ve seen some success and an increase in the bean crop in past years,” he says. “It’s mucky, gluey soil, and the rye has a large root mass. So the advantage is that it adds structure to the soil and holds up the planter.”

Making The Best Of It

Though the acres Neva planted won’t make a profit, he has a use for the barley.

“We run cattle, so we’re hoping to use it for feed,” he says. He plans to cut the barley at the soft dough stage around mid-July. Even poor land can yield enough hay for one or more large bales per acre. Areas that are fenced can also be grazed, and some of the barley will be left to grow as cover and for wildlife. In some of the areas he didn’t plan to cut for hay, Neva added a little radish seed. It also grows in saline soil and is good for taking up excess water.

Besides saving on input costs, some landowners he rents from give him a cost break on land that doesn’t produce well.

“They appreciate that I’m trying to do something to improve the soil,” Neva says. “Long-term, we’re trying to get some health back in the soil, though I don’t know if I will see it in my lifetime. Some marginal areas may get better.”

Dollars And Sense

With the focus of not spending money on crops that won’t yield anyway, Neva is looking for other ways to get ahead. On 302 acres of one half-section, he can only farm about 220 acres. The rest is grass and sloughs with cattails. This spring, he signed up for the Farmable Wetlands program and planted grasses in the rings around the sloughs. The seed mix cost $80 to $90 per acre, but he was able to cost-share the seed, labor, drill rental, and spray costs. He will receive payments for 10 years. Though there are restrictions and guidelines to follow, the program fits in with his farm operation.

“I’m looking at my fields and seeing where I can do more of this. I’d rather get a little money than none,” Neva says.

Even on his patchwork plots of land that won’t financially compensate him, he believes he is getting ahead, whether it is used for cattle feed or left for cover.

When he drives past other fields that were planted end to end with beans or corn when soil conditions were favorable, he feels even better about his barley crop.

“I’m looking at fields and areas that are planted with high expenses and have just a few spears of corn growing,” he says.

Though it’s less convenient, he plans to continue planting inexpensive seed in his poorest land.

“I think we’ll be doing it forever. Lee said there’s some land we won’t reclaim because the saline is so high,” Neva concludes.

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