Wasco County Soil and Water Conservation District
Noah Williams and his wife – an employee of the Sherman Soil and Water Conservation District – farm wheat about 15 miles east of The Dalles in Wasco County, as well as in neighboring Sherman County. Noah originally purchased the main farm in Wasco from his grandfather 11 years ago. There, he told NACD, he receives about 10 to 14 inches of annual rainfall – 85 percent of which falls as rain or snow in October through March.
After getting out of the Coast Guard in 1997, Noah started farming in the Columbia River Gorge basin where the soil is a fragile, wind-blown silt and slopes range from 5 to 45 percent. “I get lots of wind in my area, mainly from mid-spring to mid-fall, with short breaks in between that we take advantage of to spray,” Noah said. “In 2004, I purchased my first air drill and started direct seeding into chemically fallowed ground, which has worked wonders for me. I have been able to rid my fields of morning glory – as we call it – or bind weed, raising my yields by 20 bushels per acre by conserving more moisture and actually being able to fight the target pest.”
Noah says he’s adapted his Bestway sprayer to limit pesticide drift, and applies liquid bio-solid fertilizers (and some synthetic) at variable rates. He has also started using cover crops – beginning with around 50 acres worth of test plots three years ago. “I tried fall cool season, spring cool season, and a warm season mix with help from NRCS’ EQIP program. Last year, I went with a larger block of ground and did a spring multi-species cover that the neighbor’s cows grazed. This year, I planted chickpeas on 165 acres at the main farm, which hasn’t been done in my area. I also created a cover crop mix of peas and triticale that I plan to harvest and feed to my pigs, selling the excess and leaving the forage collards to alleviate soil compaction and the phacilia to be blown out of back of the combine as a sort of double soil health crop. I’m hoping for good results, and so far, it looks great.”
At first, Noah told NACD, he thought cover crops might use too much of the soil’s moisture, but in practice, they haven’t. Additionally, he said, direct seeding has raised his yields exponentially and lessened wind erosion. “I haven’t had a ditch in my field since I started, even after two feet of snow melted off this year, it all went in the ground.”
Noah’s biggest challenge is knowing when to terminate his cover crop in the spring.
“I am using soil moisture monitors to figure out the optimal time to terminate and that’s been working well. With the covers, I’ve been seeing better infiltration when it rains. For instance, I noticed more moisture this spring in my winter wheat that had a cover crop on it for 71 days than my winter wheat that was just chem fallow.”
“Every year, I try to do a little more or something a little different – you have to learn to adapt to the situation,” he said. “In this area, we grow pretty much only winter wheat because it’s easy, does well, and the market is in our backyard, making for cheap freight. The downfall to this mindset is that many believe it’s all we can do, and I want to change that. I want to make the nay-sayers see that there are alternatives. It might not be as easy, but it will work and be better for our farms.”