Dave Wagers

For David Wagers, it just makes economic sense to use farming practices that stretch the meager rainfall eastern Colorado receives on an annual basis. The current seven years of drought the area is experiencing has reinforced an article he read several years ago. The author of that article speculated that the 15 inches of rainfall Eastern Colorado has averaged from the 1950s through the 1990s is really abnormally wet for the area and the current drought is the more normal rainfall pattern.

If that’s true, there is even more reason to make moisture conservation a high priority, he said.

Using no-till and summer fallow, Wagers has been able to continue growing crops during what has been seven bone-dry years for his Woodrow, Colo., farm. A large part of that success he attributes to the standing straw left by his Shelbourne stripper header.

“I feel like the standing stubble gives the ground more ability to retain moisture,” David said. “It shades the ground more, lasts longer (than shorter stubble) and keeps the wind off the crop growing in the stubble, which also helps retain the moisture. The taller stubble also captures more snow. Typically a lot of our moisture is from snowfall and snow melt. It’s all economics to try and save the moisture.”

Wagers owns and operates 5,000 acres, which is typically planted one-third wheat, one-third in a fall crop — either corn or millet, and one-third summer fallowed. A large percentage of his wheat is raised for certified seed wheat. All of his acreage is dryland, making moisture conservation even more important. His current rotation is wheat, corn, summer fallow, followed by wheat, millet, summer fallow. He is trying to move to a four-year rotation of wheat, corn, millet, summer fallow to squeeze in one more crop year.

“I’d like to get 66-70 percent of the ground in production. Summer fallow is too expensive,” Wagers said, adding, however, that without it you couldn’t grow wheat in eastern Colorado.

To achieve that third crop in his rotation, Wagers is doing everything he can to conserve and effectively utilize available moisture.

Wagers has been using no-till since the fall of 1986 and says that it has helped boost his productivity and controls operating costs. He purchased his first Shelbourne stripper header in the mid-1990s and is currently running a CVS 28 purchased from Kay-Jan Implement on a John Deere 9660. He is a believer in the benefits of the longer straw for his no-till farming operation.

Economically it makes sense in several ways in addition to the benefits of retaining soil moisture, which translates to several more bushels of wheat raised per acre, Wagers said. The taller stubble also pays off by:

  • Increasing standing residue on the field. The taller straw lasts longer than conventionally cut straw, protecting the soil from erosion and capturing more snow, which has traditionally provided a large percentage of moisture for growing crops.
  • Increased productivity and lower input costs by using less fuel per acre to harvest and plant, less wear and tear on the combine and the ability to harvest more bushels per hour.
  • Providing a recreational benefit with habitat for wildlife by providing more nesting for pheasant and quail. In addition, the Colorado Division of Wildlife has a walk-in hunting program which pays farmers who have standing stubble more than 15-inches tall to post the field as a hunting area.
  • And, Wagers is also able to participate in the Conservation Security Program which pays $1.50 to $2 per acre if conservation practices are utilized. No-till, plus the added bonus of taller straw, increases the payment which is determined by how many conservation practices are used. This program is limited at the moment and is being implemented by watershed districts, with Wagers’ Beaver Creek Watershed District one of the first picked for the two-year-old program. However, Wagers believes the program will be continue to grow and expand into other areas.

Wagers said, in a time when controlling costs can mean the difference between profit and loss, he believes the benefits of no-till in fuel savings and time across the field are obvious. The taller straw also plays a role in a new moisture utilization practice he’s experimenting with – skip row planting in his dryland corn and a grain sorghum field. Early tests indicate skip row planting may give spring crops a better chance to withstand a prolonged drought.

Wagers is currently planting his corn in two rows with 30-inch centers and a 90-inch gap between each two-row set. His 2006 grain sorghum was planted with a 60-inch gap. Both crops were planted into standing stripped wheat stubble and, in late August 2006, were tolerating the drought stress well. The standing stubble between the rows protects it from drying out until the plant roots grow into the moisture zone and has an added benefit by protecting the young plant from wind – both of which give the plant a better start.

The wind protection can be a negative, Wagers said. If there is a cold night after the corn emerges, the lack of air movement allows the cold air to settle in the straw resulting in occasional freeze damage. But, that also indicates how the taller straw cuts down on moisture loss resulting from that same air movement.

The Wagers family has been on the forefront of conservation practices since his grandfather was the first in the county to experiment with summer fallow practices in the early 1930s. The family has worked closely with Extension and USDA research facilities in piloting new farming practices in the region. David Wagers knows the critical importance of stretching every inch of rainfall and he is convinced that the advantage in moisture retention provided by stripped wheat stubble has made the difference between growing a crop or not.