TWIN FALLS • As margins tighten across agriculture, bean producers looking for ways to cut costs are scrutinizing their tillage and harvest operations closely.
Doug Carlquist is looking to reduce both tillage and harvest passes as he looks to reduce energy costs on his Hazelton farm.
“Fewer trips through the field means less energy,” he said.
He began reducing tillage passes a few years ago when he switched from conventionally planting dry beans to strip tillage. With strip tillage, residue from the previous crop is left on the soil surface and then a shank is used to open a slit for the seed to planted in. Some sugar beet growers have adopted strip tillage so that the crop residue can help protect tender seedlings.
Doug Huettig, who farms near Hazelton and fairly close to the Carlquists, has reduced the amount of irrigation water applied and also quit applying fungicide since switching to strip till. With water supply a concern several seasons out of every decade, water savings are just as important as fuel savings.
Last year Carlquist decided to go further and try direct seeding. Bean growers in the Palouse have been direct seeding for several years, but the practice hasn’t caught on in southern Idaho.
That’s in part because direct seeding doesn’t work well on surface irrigated fields, but Carlquist has sprinkler systems. Even though he had figured out how to make strip tillage work, most of the time; direct seeding provided new challenges.
He used a grain drill with 7.5-inch rows to seed. The much narrower spacing helps force plants to grow more upright, which makes them easier to direct harvest in the fall. Narrower rows also help the plant canopy to close the rows or cover the visible surface between rows, which can reduce weed pressure.
Unfortunately, he did not make a second herbicide application and late weed pressure made it impossible for him to apply a desiccant to make direct harvest more feasible. Instead he hired a custom crew to harvest his beans.
Even though the season did not go as he had hoped, he was still impressed with how clean the beans were at harvest. Traditionally, bean growers in the Magic Valley harvest beans in two steps. First the plants are cut and put in windrows to dry, and then the beans are threshed out of the pods. With direct harvest, the beans are harvested right off the plant in the same way as wheat or barley is harvested. About 90 percent of bean growers in Washington have gone direct harvest.
“We usually have a plume of dirt coming out of the back of the combine,” Carlquist told fellow bean growers during the University of Idaho Magic Valley Bean School last week in Twin Falls. “Instead it looked like we were threshing nightshade. There was no dirt.”
In addition to the labor and fuel savings, growers who have gone to direct harvest report cleaner beans. That’s good news for bean warehouses but also farmers and custom operators.
Before growers in the Midwest moved to direct harvest, many were only able to get three years out of a $300,000 bean combine. Since direct harvest keeps the bean pods up out of the dirt, they are able to run seven or eight years before needing to do major repairs on their combines, said David Scholand, a dry bean producer from North Dakota, who shared his experiences at the meeting.
Direct harvest works best for smaller sized beans, Scholand said. He recommends that growers of kidney beans and cranberries continue their two-step harvest operations.
Steve Gillette, who farms near Gooding, began direct cutting beans a couple of years ago when he bought a combine. The first year he direct cut 1,200 acres, the next year they did all their acreage. They’ve learned to cut on a bit of angle to keep dirt from building up on the rod when harvesting pivot-irrigated fields. Labor savings, even more than fuel, drove their decision.
One complaint he has heard from other growers who have tried direct harvest is that they lose more beans than with the traditional two-step harvest. Gillette disagrees.
“I don’t feel like we are getting that much less,” he said. “You don’t see lost beans with a Pickett because they get buried.” In contrast, beans that shatter out of pods during direct harvest are lying on the surface where they are easy to spot.
Although direct harvest works better for some varieties than others, he still thinks Magic Valley growers can successfully adopt either direct seed or direct harvest practices. About half of the beans grown in the Magic Valley are sold as seed beans to the Midwest, where they are grown commercially using direct seeding and harvest methods.
“If we’re doing it on the other end, there’s no reason it can’t be done here. The plant structure is the same,” Scholand said. “Everyone has to do what’s best for their farm, what saves them a little money or what saves them a little money.”