High yield and soil conservation with direct seed

Spring wheat

Two of our most successful direct seed farmers in the drier areas of eastern Washington are Jerald Sheffels and Bob Bandy—direct seed pioneers who have been successful at it for more than 15 years. They lease state trust lands in the Wilbur area, and are part of a growing number of lessees looking into this method of minimizing soil disturbance and erosion.

Washington State’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has made a commitment to conservation on the state trust lands we manage. One conservation measure is to encourage our lessees to try direct seed farming by offering a 25 percent reduction in rent for a five-year period—just to try it. The direct seed incentive program was introduced in 2004, and to date, 48 lessees have entered the program. Most who tried direct seeding continue to use that system, even after the 25 percent rent reduction incentive has ended.

direct seed wheatDirect seeding system minimizes tilling the soil, which leaves most of the crop residue on the soil surface after the next crop is planted. Annual cropping is the most common rotation when using the direct seeding method, but when summer fallow is used in rotation, the land is chem-fallowed rather than tilled. Chem-fallow leaves most of the stubble from the previous crop on the soil surface through seeding of the next crop, virtually eliminating soil erosion that occurs when rain drenches exposed soil. Direct seeding reduces equipment costs, tractor and operator time, and greatly lowers fuel bills.

Most direct seeders—such as Gary Wollweber—farm in the 12-inch-plus rainfall zones. Gary now is in his seventh year of direct seeding on his state lease near Edwall. This year he achieved a 50-bushel-per acre yield.

“The soil has become much mellower and soil erosion is almost non-existent,” Wollweber says. 

Change comes slowly
Despite the benefits of direct seeding, it is not universally accepted. It is estimated that less than 25 percent of farmers in the higher rainfall zones use direct seed. The percentage is much less in the intermediate zones. Change comes hard. DNR realizes that producers have to believe in direct seeding before they can be successful, and we will continue to encourage our lessees to try it.