We interviewed Ed Townsend of T3 Ranch, a multi-generational and family run operation located on the Colville Reservation, about their experience with direct seeding. Their land is all direct seed dryland with rotation and summer fallow. The ranch also has cows and irrigated ground. Half the ground is fine sandy loam the other half are basaltic-based soils.
Why did you decide to start using a direct seed system?
“Dad began toying with no till in 1985. We had numerous early design drills, Maybuster, JD 750, C-pak and the Lewiston’s drill. We had enough of soil erosion in our conventional fallow, then trashy fallow, and aid to tillage (ATT). We would spray, wait, cultivate, and by seeding, the soil was flour-like in texture. We didn’t have good success early on. We didn’t have either the equipment or knowledge to understand direct seed is a systems approach, not a drill approach. In fall 2005, we had a Labor Day wind that sent our fields aloft followed by a 2-day inversion. We could see from the ranch that our fields hung over Omak. Enough was enough. In 2006 we bought a bigger 90’ sprayer and rented a +AgPro drill. In 2008, we bought a self-propelled sprayer and C-pak drill. We had average yields.”
Ed’s approach to farming changed when he met Leslie Michel in 2010, a Soil Conservation Service soil scientist in Okanogan, and saw Ray Archuleta speak about soil health. “Understanding a systems approach began to fall into place. This is not just about spraying weeds and seed placement. Soil biology, rotations, compaction,
equipment technology…. are all part of the equation.”
“We no longer farm just fields, we farm soil types. Those that are fallow friendly and those that are not. We have the tools now to treat sandy soils separately, and if we can’t put together a profitable crop rotation, we’ll plant those [soils] to grass for the cows.”
T3 Ranch is also experimenting with an in-line subsoiler that breaks up hardpan that remained even after they quit chiseling in 2000. They hoped that direct seed and rotations would cure compaction, but “after 10 years, we finally admitted tillage pan was our #1 limiting factor. Moisture, soil, and plant health were arrested in the top 6 inches. In 2017 we used an in-line, not a v, ripper that had very low surface disturbance and handled rocks better than any tool we ever pulled. We’ve reset the clock on our soils. If we follow up correctly, it will generally be a one pass treatment.”
What are some positive and negative outcomes you’ve experienced while direct seeding?
“We may actually leave our ground in a condition where future generations won’t shake their heads at what we use to do.” These past 5 years, Ed has learned more and felt his interest in farming reinvigorated. A negative outcome is the badger holes start stacking up, as they can’t till them under. Also, “I take more time spraying and seeding the crop because I’m spending more time on my hands and knees digging stuff up,” to understand what’s going on in the soil.
What advice would you give someone who was considering switching to a direct seed system?
"Talk to those who are early innovators and don’t be isolated. It’s not
all about yield. You need an attitude that it will work and it takes more mental effort. When doing conventional till, we absolutely knew we had to have a dust mulch for moisture. But now we know that’s a fallacy. You need to be open-minded and willing to adapt direct seed to your field. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over expecting different results.”