No-Tiller Plants Seeds Of Success
Garth Mulkey improved soil structure, cut costs and nearly tripled the lineup of seed crops grown on his Oregon farm by committing to no-till.
By Dan Zinkand - No-Till Farmer, February 2011
Radishes do double duty for Monmouth, Ore., no-tiller Garth Mulkey.
Not only do radishes protect the soil, improve soil tilth and suppress weeds, but Mulkey is growing the cover crop as a cash crop. Like many farmers in the Willamette Valley in western Oregon, Mulkey grows a wide variety of crops for seed. He and his wife, Susan, market covercrop seeds through their seed company, GS3 Quality Seed Inc.
“I start planting radishes toward the end of February with my John Deere 1590 no-till drill and a selfpropelled air seeder with flotation tires that we built,” Mulkey says. “We want to have the radishes planted by the end of March, but the weather is kind of finicky in Oregon in the winter.
“Whenever we get a good break, we’ll plant radishes.”
Mulkey normally drills about 3 pounds of radish seed per acre. The number of seeds per pound can range from 25,000 to 40,000. Usually, he’s planting 75,000 to 90,000 seeds per acre. The biggest challenge is protecting the stand of radishes and other spring-seeded crops.
“In western Oregon, we have a big problem with slugs,” he says. “We’ll use one or two treatments of slug baits. If we know we have a problem field, we’ll drop some slug bait through the drill. We’ll also use a fertilizer spreader to apply the bait. I’ve seen slugs wipe out fields. I’ve spent $100 per acre to control slugs, on several occasions.
“There are ways to minimize slug damage. When you plant deeper, slugs will be eating the growth on the top. If you plant shallow, the slugs will eat it and probably get the growing point. If you plant deep, the slugs will just nip the top.”
Mulkey cuts radishes when they reach about 5 feet tall, typically in mid-August. He lets them lay in the swath for about 2 weeks so the green, hollow stems dry out.
Then he returns with the combines to thresh the radishes. He uses a reel with a self-designed pickup attachment.
Yields vary from year to year. He often harvests 1,400 pounds of cleaned radish seed per acre on dryland fields and about 1,600 pounds per acre on irrigated ground. Mulkey cleans the radish seed and palletizes it.
Following the radish harvest, Mulkey drills winter wheat in October.
“We get about 10 to 11 bushels more winter wheat following radishes,” Mulkey says. “I think most of the yield benefit comes from improved soil health, and the radishes also suppress weeds.
“We’re not growing radishes as a cover crop — which no-tillers in the Corn Belt and elsewhere do — but we see the same benefits in improved soil tilth.”
Planting A Seed
Seed production dominates crop production in the Willamette Valley, which stretches about 150 miles south of the Columbia River and 35 miles east and west between two mountain ranges. Weather conditions are ideal in the valley for growing seeds, Mulkey says.
Mulkey returned to the family farm about 15 years ago after spending 10 years as a machinist in the auto and motorcycle racing industries. Radishes and hairy vetch are just a few of the seed crops Mulkey grows.
“The farm was 80% grass seed and I started diversifying it,” Mulkey says. “Back then, we grew tall fescue, winter wheat, meadowfoam and annual ryegrass. In the fall, we’d make 10 tillage trips or more to take tall-fescue sod out, which had produced seed for 5 to 7 years. Then we prepared the soil bed for seeding the following spring.
“We would disc the tall fescue twice, then harrow it once or twice, and then plow it and field cultivate it. When we started no-tilling, we sprayed herbicide on tall fescue to kill the sod. It was a lot cheaper than buying steel and diesel to rip out the fescue sod. It was an intensive crop to destroy.”
Triticale was the first crop Mulkey no-tilled successfully. Yields didn’t drop when he converted to no-till — a problem that affects many no-tillers during the first few years — because he was no-tilling into land which had been in perennial sod.
“We started trying no-till in 1996 and 1997,” Mulkey says. “We bought our first no-till drill in 1998. While we had success no-tilling after killing tall fescue sod with herbicide, we didn’t have much success no-tilling turf grasses.
“Turf-grass seed is sold on purity. It’s got to be weed-free. It’s a challenge no-tilling turf-grass seed in the fall. In many years, it’s November before we can drill turf-grass seed. Then it emerges, puts one leaf out and it’s susceptible to seemingly every slug.”
No-till allows Mulkey to seed crops in the spring and fall, when seed crops have traditionally been planted in the valley.
Spring seeding with no-till means he can grow more crops, and irrigation helps, he says. After harvesting a field of winter wheat last August, Mulkey flailed the straw twice. He irrigated the field, which had been in no-till for 12 years, using a linear irrigation machine.
“We put water on the field because you want to get the weeds up so you can kill them,” Mulkey says. “Then you want to get the grass seedlings up and growing strong before they go dormant.”
Mulkey’s had some success no-tilling annual ryegrass.
“We are now planting a fair amount of our annual ryegrass in February,” he says. “If you can get annual ryegrass in the ground at that time of year, it will emerge and grow faster than the slugs can eat it. We just did the same thing in early 2010 with hairy vetch.
“We planted vetch in February and harvested a good crop in early August.”
Timing Is Crucial
No-tilling in the Willamette Valley actually dates back to the late 1970s and early 1980s, when farmers tried no-tilling winter wheat.
Hessian fly problems damaged stands in continuous wheat and no-till came and went as a fad. But things changed by the mid-1990s.
“Eight years ago, I was fortunate to get together with three or four other growers who, like me, were trying to no-till on a broader scale,” Mulkey says. “We really made a lot of progress in seeing what worked with no-till in the Willamette Valley. We visited each other’s farms about every 3 or 4 months.”
For visitors used to driving through fields of corn and soybeans as far as the eye can see, walking through Mulkey’s fields is a dazzling sight.
On 1,100 acres last year, he grew radishes; hairy vetch; soft-white winter wheat; tall fescue for forage and turf; perennial ryegrass for turf; intermediate ryegrass for turf; gulf ryegrass for forage; KB Royal annual ryegrass; spring peas; meadowfoam; buckwheat; cabbage; chard; and broccoli.
A number of factors make the Willamette Valley a natural for seed production, Mulkey says.
“We have mild winters. We rarely have such cold weather that it’s detrimental to crops,” he says. “We have a fair amount of moisture in the spring, and then it quits raining, which is good for harvest. There’s also infrastructure, with many seed-cleaning facilities, and there’s agronomy expertise.”
Eliminating Tillage Trips
Before Mulkey began spraying herbicide on tall-fescue sod to kill it, he was discing it two or three times, moldboard plowing or harrowing, followed by many tillage trips to prepare the seedbed for planting. The multiple trips were something commonly seen in the valley.
“I know guys who’ve made 15 trips to prep a field for seeding after tall fescue,” Mulkey says. “Now we chop or flail it, then let the residue break down.”
“The cost of tillage can vary. Plowing was costing us $18 to $20 per acre, per pass. By no-tilling, we farm 1,100 acres with a 170-horsepower tractor. To pull a plow, we would need another tractor.”
No-tilling seed crops is a radical departure from the practice of char-coal-banding them. The practice, developed in the Willamette Valley many years ago, has pluses and minuses.
After working the soil many times to create a fine seedbed, farmers pull a tank that lays down a strip of liquid charcoal over the seed row at planting. The charcoal absorbs Karmex, a herbicide that is broadcast on the field, and allows seed to emerge safely. While this works well on flat fields, charcoal banding has its limits.
“If you try charcoal banding on steep hills and Karmex moves in between the seed rows, it can kill the seedlings as soil erodes,” Mulkey says. “By irrigated fields where we harvested winter wheat, we can get weeds to sprout. We can kill the weeds with herbicide, then no-till tall fescue.”
Plethora Of Crops In Willamette Valley
Mulkey says there’s lots of no-tilled wheat in the Willamette Valley, but the crop with the highest percentage of no-tilled acres is probably meadowfoam.
Oil from the plant is used in making cosmetics. The crop is contracted through the Oregon Meadowfoam Growers Association, a cooperative with 56 members. Mulkey serves on the co-op’s board and his father Gylan was a founding member.
Meadowfoam has almost no residue, so it lends itself to no-tilling annual ryegrass after the meadowfoam is harvested, Mulkey says.
Annual ryegrass has weak seedlings and struggles when seeded into straw, so it’s important to get the crop to emerge and grow quickly, he says. Mulkey grows other crops for seed and for food markets.
He grew buckwheat for the second time in 2010, no-tilling it after annual ryegrass. The buckwheat is going to Japan, where it’s used for noodles and flour. But he warns there isn’t much money in buckwheat.
“Annual ryegrass prices were low in the fall of 2009 and we had some acres available,” he recalls. “But there aren’t many chemicals registered that control weeds in buckwheat.”
In 2010, Mulkey experimented on one acre with no-till broccoli after spring wheat.
“Someone was looking to get it grown cheaply,” he says. “There’s not much broccoli grown in western Oregon. It doesn’t mature in time.”
Mulkey also grew 7 acres of chard for seed last year. The contractor required him to till the ground before it was planted.
“The chard was started in a greenhouse in fall 2009 and transplanted here in February 2010,” he says. “The individual plants are about 3 inches tall and planted by hand on 4-inch spacings. In addition to the ground preparation, I spray, water and harvest it.
“It will probably be the most profitable crop on the farm in 2010. Back in 2008, I grew 10 acres of chard and they sent me a check for more than $30,000.”
The global economic recession drastically affected grass-seed production in the Willamette Valley in 2009 and 2010.
Many grass-seed growers switched tens of thousands of acres to winter wheat and corn.
“Annual ryegrass has moved fine,” Mulkey says, “but turf grasses aren’t moving right now because they’re used for lawns and golf courses.”
Crop Portfolio Expands, Compaction Fades
After Mulkey began no-tilling years ago, he quickly learned how important it is to manage residue and spread it uniformly.
He reverses the knives in the straw chopper annually and replaces them every other year. He also monitors fields for nutrient stratification, a byproduct of no-tilling. He’s been spreading lime in fields once every 5 years at a cost of $65 per ton.
“With all of the rain — as much as 40 to 60 inches per winter — we really wash out the lime,” he says.
“With no-till, we can get low pH in the top 1 to 2 inches of the soil. And with pH of 5 or less, wheat will not perform well.
“A pH below 5 in the top 2 inches will cut your wheat yields in half, and with clovers, there will be almost no stand. But radishes are pretty tolerant to low pH.”
Despite the high cost of tillage, the practice continues throughout the Willamette Valley. There are two main reasons for that, Mulkey says.
“A large portion of the valley is in turf grasses,” he says. “At this point, turf grasses grow better with tillage, so no-tilling is still a work in progress. There’s the issue of timing and controlling slugs and a lot of guys don’t want to take a risk.
“If you till ground in the Willamette Valley, there’s a good chance you won’t get on it until early April because the ground is so wet. But no-tilling has allowed me to grow more crops that are spring planted.
“Before we began no-tilling, we grew just four crops — tall fescue, wheat, annual ryegrass and meadowfoam. Now we grow about 11 each year. With no-till, the soil has better structure, which holds the equipment up better. And there’s less compaction.”
NO-TILL GROWTH. No-till came and went as a fad in the Willamette Valley during the 1980s but re-emerged in the ‘90s through the efforts of growers like Garth Mulkey and others.
2010 Acreage On Mulkey Farm
Soft-white winter wheat — 240
Annual ryegrass — 180
Tall Fescue — 140
Radish — 180
Perennial ryegrass — 122
Meadowfoam — 85
Spring peas — 65
Buckwheat — 4
Chard — 7
Hybrid cabbage — 2
Broccoli — 1