Nothing stops a 100-horsepower tractor in California quicker than $100 per ton corn prices

At least six California corn producers basically left tons of iron and hundreds of horsepower in their equipment yards this season and grew no-till, herbicide-resident corn for the first time in the state. There was probably less than 2,000 acres of Roundup Ready varieties between those six producers.

Forget all the stuff about growing no-till to stop erosion, improve soil tilth, etc. That's Midwest corn talk. Although California producers who tried no-till this season saw agronomic benefits, the bottom line is that no-till is driven by dollars and cents in California.

Chuck Dudley, farm manager for Joe Heidrick Farms in Woodland, Calif., was ready to start disking, bedding up and doing everything he usually does to get ready plant corn. He looked at the corn market. It said $4.75 per hundredweight last spring, and he realized there was no way he could make a profit farming corn the way he and his fellow Yolo County producers have been doing for years. "And prices have gone down since then," he said.

Five, six or seven tons of corn per acre were not going to pay the bills in the year 2000. He had to figure a way to cut costs, and parking tractors was the only way he figured he could do that.

"Cultivation became a discretionary cost," he said.

The corn has not yet been harvested, so there is no yield information yet from the 250 acres he grew this year and therefore no income number. It will be respectable, however, based on the ear count. However, he knows for sure he has $65 per acre left in the budget he did not spend. That savings alone will represent about half the $40,000 Heidrick Farms will pay for a new 14-row no-till planter they'll use next spring to plant more no-till corn.

This year the no-till acreage represented about 25 percent of Heidrick's corn acreage. It will be more next year because prices have not improved.

Dudley is like most other farm managers who know they have been running too much iron across fields for years. "During the summer it never rains so farmers figure they should be doing something with their tractors so we figure we might as well make a few passes," he said.

It is not as if corn or any other crop does not benefit from cultivating, fertilizer injections and other field operations, according to Bret Leishman, office manager for Circle G Ranch, also in Woodland, Calif.

Weigh against costs "It's not as if these operations are of no benefit, but it has reached the point where you have to weigh those benefits against costs," Leishman said. "With diesel costs at $2 per gallon; minimum wage increasing and commodity prices as poor like they are, there is a lot more weighing going on."

It costs $5 to $10 per acre to run a tractor through a field, estimates Dudley. Multiply that over six to as many as 10 trips through for a Northern California corn crop, and it is easy to see where $65 or more per acre in savings could be found in horsepower and iron costs.

"We cut one-third of our production cost with no-till," said Dudley. "We eliminated seven field operations."

No-till is old hat in the Midwest and in many others Sun Belt states, but in California there has really not been sound agronomic reasons. Rain and wind are not major erosion factors, certainly not during the growing seasons and winters are relatively mild.

"Of course we had heard about no-till and conservation tillage and had attended field days on the subject. However, we didn't have much interest until we saw $4.75 corn," said Dudley.

Dudley contacted the local Monsanto representative about trying no-till. The mechanical technology was located in Nevada in a six-row John Deere Max-Emerge air planter equipped with Yetter no-till attachments.

The Roundup Ready varieties available were limited to a local seed company, Seed Tec. "The best Roundup Ready varieties are available in the Midwest. That is the biggest drawback right now to no-till corn in the Sacramento Valley," said Dudley. "Fortunately a local seed company recognized there could be a market for Roundup-resistance and put the gene into its varieties."

The Heidrick fields selected for no-till; were in flood plains, one in Cache Creek and the other in the Yolo By-Pass.

"We had already disked all out other fields in the fall, but because these areas almost always flood in the winter we had not worked the ground. We usually do that in the spring," said Dudley. The earliest Dudley can expect to get into these areas is May 1.

The no-till corn was planted at a plant population of 30,000 plants per acre. A starter fertilizer of 10-34-0 was applied at the same time about one and a half inches deep. A preplant pesticide also was included in the single pass.

Applied too shallow "We should have put the fertilizer at least two inches deep. In the Midwest they count on rain to push it down. We cannot count on that," he said. A zinc deficiency showed up on one field because of that. "The zinc was there in the pre-plant, but the plants could not get it.

"The planter was amazing. It is a heavy piece of equipment and it went through the trash without any bouncing. It did an excellent job," he said, adding, "my wife took a video of it and you can hear the stalks crunching and crackling as we went through the field."

Except for a sidedress application of UN 32, the planter was the only piece of soil-disturbing equipment that went through the field.

"About the only thing I can think where we might need to go through in the future is to clean out furrows of old corn stalks so we can get the irrigation water through," said Dudley. Other than that, he does not expect to till corn.

Weed control consisted of two Roundup applications in the herbicide-resistant corn. Some of the Roundup went on pre-plant. The corn was about 10 inches tall when the final Roundup went on.

"We had good weed control the year before in the same field and that may have helped. We used Permit for sedge control last season. It did an excellent job, but I was expecting to see more sedge that we had in the no-till," Dudley said.

Make no mistake; the weed pressure is high in those flooded fields. "We get the seeds of every weed known in Northern California. We get all kinds of things in the floodwater - even logs - so the weed pressure is always there," said Dudley.

Dudley saw other benefits from no-till other than dollar savings. It "seemed" to use less water because of the crop residue mulches..."maybe one less irrigation than conventional corn." One field came out of corn and the other was in tomatoes in 1999. "We were not moving dirt around and the moisture did not seen to escape," he said.

"I think the weed pressure was less because we were not turning up new weed seed with every cultivation," he added.

Dudley is not ready to become the apostle no-till corn in California, but he has seen enough to expand acreage and purchase the new planter.

"I think a lot of the `benefits' we saw were `maybe sorta' of kind of things," he said, of the initial year of no-till corn. "We still have a lot to learn."

However, Dudley is convinced farmers must use less equipment. It is part of the "survival mechanism" they must employ to keep afloat, especially in the Sacramento Valley where the demise of sugar beets, reduced tomato and seed acreage has taken 100,000 acres out of those high value crops.

"This no-till corn can play a limited role in offsetting those loses, but corn prices have to go up substantially for corn to make up the staggering losses we are facing in Northern California with the loss of our high value crops," he said.

Leishman agrees. Circle G Farms tomato acreage went from 1,300 acres last season to only 300 because of loss of processing plants and contracts. Heidrick Farms went from 1,400 acres of processing tomatoes in 1999 to 0 this season.

"Things can happen to bring acreage back up from 2000 levels, like weather or a more efficient new processing plant coming in to replace the three old ones that have closed," said Leishman. "But, I do not believe it will ever be as big as it was a few years back. The pie will permanently be smaller here."

Circle G is the second Yolo County producer to try no-till corn. It was grown for silage for a nearby dairy and followed oats.

"We tried it because it represented less cost and with silage we could come in behind oats and get a crop quicker than with grain corn," he said.

Circle G reduced its passes through the corn from nine or 10 with convention corn to only three with no-till and they expect to harvest a 25 to 26 tons of silage. The dairyman who contracted for it told Circle G owner Joe Gnoss Jr. it looked like 30 tons. It was the farm's second silage crop for the new dairy.

"The Roundup Ready corn has worked well for us," said Gnoss. "Crops like corn, safflower and wheat are basically rotational crops here. Nevertheless, commodity prices are so low; we have to watch our costs very closely with these. These crops have to survive economically for use with our money crops-alfalfa and tomatoes," said Leishman.

Right now no-till offers promises for that survival.