Earnest Dreith admits to being a little old fashioned. He’s entitled. He’s spent most of his life working the farm his father put together back in the early part of the last century.
In addition to raising crops, mostly wheat, on the farm near Chattanooga, Okla., Dreith spent six months a year for 50 years harvesting grain from Texas to South Dakota. He closed down his custom harvest operation just three years ago. At 75, he still does most of the work, with help from Shirley, his wife of 54 years, on the Comanche County wheat farm.
He says he learned a lot about growing wheat in the years he’s been raising it and harvesting it for other people. He’s not averse to changing technology, but he still believes tillage makes a difference in wheat yields.
“What works for me on my farm may not work for someone else,” Dreith says. He’s adopted some minimum-tillage practices, but insists that some tillage, especially on continuous wheat, is essential to keep weeds from reducing yield potential.
“Rotation helps,” he says. “And wheat farmers need to use a crop that will break the hardpan.
“No-till allows farmers to work large acreage. A lot of farmers changed (to no-till) because of labor. And some say after they’ve switched to no-till awhile, production gets better. But I’ve harvested no-till wheat from here to South Dakota and found that it’s not a lot cheaper. Chemicals can be expensive.”
He says production also may suffer “if no-till farmers don’t rotate to control weeds and grasses. I see a lot of cheat and goat grass in continuous no-till wheat. And yields begin to decline. I think no-till wheat is OK, but I wouldn’t do it year after year.”
He had some no-till wheat himself in 2009. Surgery last fall kept him from finishing planting so some neighbors helped out and planted no-till in 2008-crop stubble. Dry conditions after planting resulted in poor stands, so Dreith replanted some, with minimal tillage, when he recovered.
“I’ll do a little more tillage in 2009,” he says. He thinks the tilled acreage performed better under drought conditions than the no-till fields. None of it looked particularly good and about 20 bushels per acre will be the best he expects to make. “But the fields that were tilled will make a crop."
Dreith typically runs sweeps through his fields as soon after harvest as possible. He leaves as much old crop residue on the surface as he can to reduce erosion and improve moisture retention. “Residue also keeps the soil cooler."
“I use a moldboard plow every once in a while. I used to throw up terraces with a moldboard plow and I made my best wheat on those terraces. I used a moldboard on one field last year. I don’t have a lot of wheat on it, but it’s the best field I have.”
He says conditions for the 2009 crop were bad from the start. “We had 2 inches of rain from August through October and then less than 2 inches since we planted. We got most of that in small rains and 1.2 inch of it in early April.
It was a far cry from the 2008 crop, which Dreith says was the best he ever made.
Dreith says land he tills holds water better than no-till fields. “Ponds near no-till fields will be full,” he says. “Near tilled fields, they’ll be low.”
He uses those sweeps after harvest to rip the land. “If I begin to see weeds in the fields I’ll use a disk or the sweeps again. I try to get the soil good and mellow to about 5 inches deep. I will not go over the land again unless I see more weeds.”
He usually doesn’t need a herbicide but will apply one if necessary in the spring, usually for mustard and henbit, with topdressed fertilizer. “That’s about the only thing we hire done, spray and fertilizer applications. We do most everything else ourselves. We might hire a truck driver at harvest.”
He had trouble with Johnsongrass once and couldn’t get timely applications made so he bought a sprayer. “I used it for two years and haven’t needed it for the last two or three,” he says. “We cleaned up the Johnsongrass. In-season tillage takes care of most weed problems. I just use the sweeps or a disk. I can go over the ground for about the same expense as a chemical application.”
He typically makes three trips across the field before planting. “I start as soon as I get the wheat off and keep it clean until planting.”
He recommends a hoe drill. “In some fields worked with a disk, wheat doesn’t come up in tractor tracks. With the hoe drill it comes up all over.”
He plants as slow as feasible. “I pull a 32-foot planter at 4 miles per hour instead of a 60-foot planter at 6 miles per hour. I prefer to go slower and get the seed in the ground. I think emergence is better.”
He adds fertilizer before planting and topdresses in February.
Dreith cut back his work schedule three years ago when he stopped custom harvesting. “I was gone six months out of the year,” he says. “My wife did a good job farming while I was gone.” Shirley taught school for years and says when she went back in the fall she “was as tired as when school let out for the summer. He started here and cut all the way to South Dakota, came back and then went to Colorado,” she says.
“It wears you down,” Dreith says of custom harvest work, “but there is a difference between doing something you have to do and something you enjoy. I still stay in touch with folks I used to harvest for.”
He saw a lot of changes in cropping systems and harvest equipment during his 50 years on combines. “I started out when I was in high school. I worked with my brothers and with them and four combines, we could cut 160 acres a day. Now I can do 100 a day with one combine. Things have changed for the better.
“Shirley went with me some years. She ran the combine and I drove the truck.”
They recall being snowed in several times during fall harvest. “One year in Colorado the temperature dropped from 77 degrees to 42 degrees in 30 minutes. An hour-and-a-half later we were in a blizzard.
“I’ve been through a lot of crops and met a lot of good people,” he says. “Some I met and didn’t go back, but I cut for many for 30 years or more and then I’d harvest for their sons or new renters. I don’t recall ever working anywhere I couldn’t go back. Maybe I did a good job or maybe they just didn’t know any better.”