Sustainability

Ground Work 2021: Making Progress Between Alabama Rains

We have gotten quite a bit of rain this spring. That means our fields are wet, so getting them ready for planting is going slower than we anticipated.

I do not want to complain about the rain, but I am eager to get field work done in order for us to be ready to start planting at the end of April. When we started farming this ground, we heard several old-timers say that you were never more than just seven days away from a drought. That was hard to believe, but now, 14 years later, I have learned how quickly our soils can go from one extreme to the other. We can be wet, but in just a matter of a few days, the wind and heat can dry out our soils quickly. Therefore, I try to be thankful for the rain when we get it – even if it slows down fieldwork.

Last week, I finally finished burndown, the herbicide application that controls all the winter weeds and grasses that grew in the rest of our fields since last fall. This herbicide application lets us start with a clean pallet. The picture shows one of the first fields I burned down, a couple weeks after the herbicide application. The crop residue above the ground helps protect the soil and shade out any weeds that might become competition for nutrients after our freshly planted crops emerge.

At the same time, our local supplier has been applying our variable-rate fertilizer prescriptions to our fields between rains. This past January and February, we had them take grid soil samples for every hectare, or 2.5 acres. Based on those soil samples and the crop we plan to plant in each field, they created maps to apply just the right amount of fertilizer needed in every part of the field. For example, some areas need more or less pre-plant nitrogen or different amounts of potash, or phosphorus, while other areas need more potassium.

Variable-rate fertilizer application is a tool we use that saves fertilizer costs, but it also helps us be more sustainable, as we only apply the nutrients the crop needs to our fields. About three years after we started using this tool, we noticed that our crops were more consistent throughout the field. They grow and yield more consistently throughout the whole field, which also indicates more consistent crop quality.

In the next couple weeks, between forecasted rains and when the fields allow, I will be working ground. For example, I have two fields that will be planted to peanuts and cotton that I will use a ripper-roller on. This piece of equipment has shanks that break up soil compaction without turning it over or disturbing the organic matter on top. This helps prepare the seedbed. I also need to disk and field cultivate the fields that will be planted in peanuts. While we minimize tillage where we can, peanuts need our soils to be worked to ensure a good seedbed for them to grow in and to help with insect management in the crop residue from the year before.

When it rains and when my husband is home, we have been working on equipment. We update the technology in a couple of tractors that now must be reset so all the technology we rely on in the cab will work correctly. We have gotten our planters ready to go, and we are wrapping up our seed orders. We continue fixing other equipment as needed, and we will probably find other repairs that will be needed along the way.

Once the field preparation work is done, I hope to start planting sorghum the last week of April, and then plant peanuts the first week of May. However, the weather, getting equipment adjusted between crops, and other unpredictable factors will determine when we actually start.

Our winter wheat is growing well, thanks in part to the nitrogen I applied last month. To protect the flag leaf and ensure crop quality, we hired an airplane to fly fungicide onto the field a couple weeks ago. Now the heads have emerged and are starting to pollinate. We were concerned when we had frost three mornings in a row the first few days of April, but after a week, we didn’t see signs of permanent damage, so thankfully the temperatures weren’t cold long enough to cause damage. Since the heads are fully emerged, the plane returned this week and applied our preventative head scab fungicide. We will just monitor its growth for the next several weeks, and we do not expect to have to do anything else for this crop until we harvest it in early June.

In the meantime, our family stays busy. Though spring softball has wrapped up, our daughters are getting ready for a dance recital on May 1. The family and school commitments continue with class projects and spring choir concerts.

I am excited that planting is getting closer. I just hope the weather cooperates so that I can get the fields ready and planted on time. Just like any farmers, we rarely are completely happy with the weather on a daily basis, because of changing conditions and what we need at that very moment. Either way, it does not do us any good to complain, because we certainly cannot change Mother Nature.

Ground Work 2021: Making Progress Between Alabama Rains

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Wendy Yeager

Wendy Yeager is a fourth-generation farmer from Orrville, Alabama, where she grows soybeans, cotton, peanuts, grain sorghum and wheat on Bell Place Farms. She lives with her husband Jamie and two daughters, Casey and Lillian. A farming operation of one, she prioritizes being a good steward of the land and is passionate about technology that boosts yield and profitability with less pressure to sacrifice sustainable practices.