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No-till drilling improves grass stands

Alisa Anderson Published on 15 September 2011
Karl Zweifel and his son, Hal

In Tillamook County, Oregon, where they get approximately 90 inches of rain every year, farmers use no-till drilling as a management tool in that area to increase the productivity of their pastures.

“It’s pretty common because of the way it’s used. It’s really used to fill in holes, and by doing that you actually are taking care of weed control – out-competing the weeds by filling the space with more grass.

We have a lot of rain in the spring and fall usually, and we graze a lot of cows, and so a lot of times there’s some puddling up and kind of muddy spots coming in out of gateways and along fencelines and down by water troughs.

So we’ve used no-till as a management tool to help thicken some of these stands,” says Troy Downing, dairy faculty at the Tillamook County Extension office.

Karl Zweifel tapped into this market when he started his custom no-till seed drilling business, the first of its kind in the area. Zweifel’s business began when he was successful with no-till drilling on his own 300-acre farm.

Zweifel has been raising replacement dairy heifers since 2002. Currently he has 400 head at his place. Zweifel feeds the heifers all the grain and silage they can eat on top of an orchardgrass hay that he grows himself.

Zweifel always has a goal to improve production and quality in his fields so he can feed his heifers well.

Every couple of years he goes over them and interseeds new varieties of grasses and legumes to improve them. So he started borrowing a six-foot-wide no-till drill from the local NRCS to use for interseeding.

“It worked pretty good. It increases yield on my grass and silage fields,” he says.

Later he bought a 12-foot drill at a local dealership. “I think they cut me a little slack because the drill had been sitting here for a year and a half and they couldn’t sell it. Everyone was scared to do it,” Zweifel says.

The 12-foot drill cut his seeding time in half. And when he saw how well it worked for him and his farm, he wanted to start doing it for other people, he says.

Zweifel has several neighbors who own six-foot drills, but because of the time it takes for them to drill their pastures and fields themselves, it saves them money to have Zweifel come do it. Zweifel says the most he’s done in one day is 70 acres.

One challenge Zweifel has had was breaking into the market. Not everyone believes no-till drilling will save them money.

Because custom drilling was a new thing in the area, Zweifel hasn’t been able to charge the same amount as custom seed drilling businesses in other areas.

“Typically, in the Willamette Valley, or even in Idaho, I can probably get $30 an acre. But I went to a guy and said, ‘I want $25 an acre,’ and he laughed at me,” Zweifel says.

So Zweifel started charging $100 an hour. On average he makes $22.50 an acre. But although it’s cheap, he says he’s fine with that because he earns enough to make his drill payment each year, his wear and tear is very low and he is breaking into a new market.

Zweifel admits he was scared to jump into custom drilling. “I was nervous about getting the right amount of seed in the ground.

A lot of guys say, ‘There’s 20 acres out there. Here’s 400 pounds of seed. I want exactly 14 pounds to the acre.

’ It’s taken me a little while, but I’m confident now that with the drill I can actually put less seed in the ground and get a better stand than doing it conventionally,” Zweifel says.

The hardest thing Zweifel has done breaking into the market is convincing people that what he can do will save them money, he says.

“I started working for two brothers, and I did 20 acres next to a conventional seeding. My drill seeding came up just perfect. But with the conventional seeding,

half the field didn’t even come up. For whatever reason, I’m not sure. I charged them $550. They figured it cost them twice as much to work the other field, and the seed didn’t come up as well as mine did.

This year they had me do 65 acres, and they didn’t do anything. They’re extremely pleased with how the seed is coming up,” Zweifel says.

Zweifel has many success stories. When he drills silage ground, the yield is often increased by half. For one customer, his pasture is increased threefold when Zweifel no-tilled new seed into it.

Zweifel says different customers ask him to do different things. One popular thing he does is to interseed ryegrass into pastures. According to Downing, this would be expected.

“One of the things that is kind of unique, I think, compared to what we see in a lot of drier areas, is that we’re predominantly pasture in terms of what we grow.

And ryegrass is our predominant dairy pasture species. The nice thing with the no-till drill is we can shift species composition and fill in older, thinner stands with the no-till drill. So you never actually take anything out of production.”

“Potentially, you can introduce new varieties, you can thicken the stand, you can improve overall productivity with no-till drilling.

Then the seeding rate is a little bit lower than what you want if you were re-establishing, so you obviously have a lot less total costs than compared to renovating,” Downing says.

Ryegrass does well because it grows fast and can stand competition from older, established grasses.

Ryegrass is the only thing that does well in the area when interseeded in the spring, and is a popular thing to plant in the fall, Downing says.

One thing that makes no-till drilling so successful is that it allows farmers to introduce genetics that improve their pasture.

Zweifel has done this with a new strain of Italian ryegrass that grows faster. But according to Downing, no-till seeding new varieties will only increase your yield if you have other things in line first.

“The last thing I would want is for someone to renovate their pasture without bringing their soil fertility up and their grazing management up first; 80 percent of the improvement can come from doing those two things. If you do that, then you make some real strides by introducing new genetics,” Downing says.

Zweifel started three years ago, and now he does 400 acres a year for others. His goal is to do 1,000. But he says his biggest success with his business is making grass grow.

“People get excited because down here that’s how people make a living – by having good grass grow. It’s a big thing where we’re from,” Zweifel says.  FG

PHOTO
Karl Zweifel and his son, Hal, are building a successful custom no-till business after implementing the practice on their own farm. Photo courtesy of the Zweifel Family.

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