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No-till, Diverse Rotations Help Oklahoma Farmer Beat the Heat
In southwest Oklahoma, acre after acre, mile after mile, farmers here grow winter wheat and graze cattle. That's pretty much it.
Alan Mindeman, who owns Apache Seed Farms near Apache, grows wheat, but his crop operation is so much more. Wheat is one component of a thriving system that works with the region's often unforgiving climate.
Mindeman, who has no-tilled continuously since 1996, says protecting the soil surface by not tilling and preserving residue is vital.
"I can more efficiently use the moisture I get. Too many farmers believe they cannot no-till, but the truth is they can't afford to till anymore," he explains. Many farmers graze wheat or crop residue, or put up hay, leaving very little residue behind. Over time, these soils wear out.
A Marked Difference
Mindeman's current operation is dramatically different than when he grew up. "My Dad was the cleanest 'clean tiller' there ever was," he says.
The problems with strict conventional tillage were illustrated when Alan's father was bull-dozing terraces on these clean-till fields. Where terraces had once been, crops the next year were excellent, because soils beneath the terraces had not been disturbed. After several years, however, these once lush strips where the terraces had been began to yield the same as the rest of the tilled field.
"We just wore out that soil," he recalls.
Fast forward to 1996, Alan's first year as a farmer. He was convinced that no-till was the way to go, and bought a 750 no-till drill. He gleaned information from and bounced ideas off of fellow no-tillers through the Pioneer No-till Association in Enid, Oklahoma. It took five or six years to get a no-till system in place, but Mindeman reckons many producers embarking upon a new no-till system don't have the patience to work through the transition from tillage to no-tillage.
"Just when it's getting good, they tear it up," he says. "They just can't figure out what else to do."
Mindeman's farm gets about 32 inches of precipitation each year. Rain is sporadic, and seldom comes at the right time.
"To be efficient with moisture, we need to have residue," he says. "Grazing or haying our crop residue is a killer."
In the form of stubble following harvest or cover crops, the presence of crop residue allows Mindeman to keep a flexible crop system. There is no set crop rotation, although wheat, grain sorghum, corn and sunflowers are main cash crops. Mindeman also grows red and white milo, proso millet, sesame, mug beans and non-GM soybeans. Wheat is the only crop he grows in a "stacked" rotation (or in consecutive years). Even then, he may grow a short-term crop in between wheat harvest and wheat planting, just to provide armor for the soil.
He constantly searches for new markets for these "unconventional" crops. His on-farm storage system can hold an entire year's worth of conventional and non-conventional crops, which improves marketing flexibility.
This year, Mindeman sold more than a million pounds of proso millet to a nearby birdseed purveyor, which formally had to import in from several states away. "I provide a quality product just in time. If they need a load tomorrow, I can have a semi at their door by 10 a.m.," he says. "It's all about geographic advantage. I can grow a lot of crops close to them."
He grows cover crops to keep an armor of living plants on the soil, which improves soil health. Fields are zone sampled on a three-year rotation, and improvements are made as necessary.
Mindeman, who serves as vice president of the No-till on the Plains organization, notes that soil organic matter on his fields improves at a rate of 1/10th of 1% each year. That kind of improvement helps increase water holding capacity and nutrient availability. Combined, these factors provide a host of cropping possibilities.
"So many options," he says, "but the basis of all this is long-term, high-residue no-till. When you have that down, you can exploit a lot of opportunities."