Growing up on his family’s farm outside of Wray, Colo., Chad Godsey gained an early understanding of how important water is to growing a good crop.
This knowledge shaped his professional career as cropping systems specialist with the Oklahoma State University and the founder of Godsey Precision Ag, which provides conservation-minded water management, grid sampling and seeding advice.
For the last decade-plus, Godsey, his dad and brother have worked to implement no-till and minimum-tillage practices on the family farm, which is about 3,000 acres of primarily irrigated corn, and a few acres of dry beans, in northeastern Colorado.
But 5 years ago, they converted their corn operation to strip-till to maintain and improve soil structure, and also incorporated soil moisture sensing technology to apply water more precisely from center pivots.
With primarily sandy soils, they don’t have nearly the water-holding capacity that farmers in the Midwest, or even parts of Kansas and Nebraska have.
The biggest perennial challenge the Godseys faced on their farm, was losing soil to wind erosion.
STRIP-TILL SUCCESS. Five years ago, Chad Godsey worked with his family to convert their irrigated corn acres in Wray, Colo., to strip-till to solve wind erosion problems and improve soil structure. Although they haven't seen much growth in organic matter yet, covering the soil surface with crop residue is protecting the ground.
“We’ve always had problems with wind erosion and that’s the main reason we wanted to move to strip-till,” he says. “Probably the biggest benefit we’ve seen is that we get very little to no erosion now.
“For the first time that I can remember, I’ve been finding earthworms the last couple of years. Especially in our sandy soils, that’s really saying something. There’s not as much soil blowing around in spring.”
Although they haven’t yet seen much growth in organic matter, covering the soil surface with crop residue is protecting the ground, and Godsey is an advocate of staying off the fields as much as possible.
“After fall harvest, the ground is cattle grazed, and we don’t touch it until March,” he says. “They want to build our strips within 2 weeks of planting, and sometimes we’ll strip-till 2 days before planting.”
In the past, he’s done some vertical tillage with a Landoll machine to break down residue prior to planting. This sizes the residue and lets the residue settle and speeds up planting.
“We’ll do straight strip-till if we don’t have heavy residue,” Godsey says. “But sometimes we need to resize some of that residue before we build our strips because we don’t want loose residue blowing over the row when we plant.”
FERTILITY FOCUS. With primarily sandy soils, the Godseys moved away from applying fertilizer with their strip-till rig, to applying their phosphorus and nitrogen needs with two 12-row John Deere Max Emerge planters. They will then variable-rate between 30 to 100 pounds per acre of 28% or 32% nitrogen at V4 to V6 stage.
They build their strips 6 to 8 inches wide and 6 to 8 inches deep using a 12-row Orthman rig. They previously used an Orthman 1rRIPr to also apply fertilizer in the strip, but now applies the majority of fertilizer at planting and sidedress.
“I know a lot of strip-tillers put the majority of their nitrogen on with their rig, but our sandy soils dictate that we can’t do that,” Godsey says. “If we put that nitrogen on up front, we may lose it.
“We got rid of the fertilizer caddy and I prefer putting that fertilizer in the ground, as close as we can to when the plant will need it. We also don’t apply anything in fall because there’s too high a risk of leaching.”
With their two 12-row John Deere Max Emerge planters, they apply about 30 to 45 pounds per acre of phosphate (P205), and 10 to 15 pounds per acre of a liquid urea-ammonium nitrate (UAN), along with 32% nitrogen mix in 2-by-2-inch placement, at a rate determined by soil tests.
He then variable-rate sidedresses 30 to 100 pounds of either 28% or 32% nitrogen at V4 to V6 stage, and the balance is spoon fed through the center pivots during irrigation.
Probing For Savings
With the majority of their corn under irrigation, Godsey leverages the natural benefits of water infiltration in strip-till to make every drop count. With primarily sandy soils, they don’t have nearly the water-holding capacity that farmers in the Midwest, or even parts of Kansas and Nebraska have.
MOISTURE SENSING. The Godseys incorporated soil-moisture sensing technology on their farm, which has allowed them to better manage seed populations and water application to increase yields, especially on hilltops. The Godseys have reduced seed populations on hilltops by about 20% and seen yields increase by 10%.
“We’ve got fuller moisture-content profiles, which reduces early-season irrigation requirements and maintains soil moisture near the surface,” he says. “We’re seeing reduced evaporation losses early in the season, and there’s no doubt there’s some moisture savings — especially prior to canopy closure.”
While Godsey says it’s hard to quantify specific water savings through strip-till alone, using soil-moisture sensors during the last several years has provided more tangible benefits. He says that soil moisture monitoring is the best ammunition farmers have against over-irrigating crops.
“Keeping track of soil moisture content data, we’ve done a better job early in the season, late in the season and after a heavy rain of knowing when to turn the sprinklers on,” he says. “In the past, we’d just apply the rule of thumb that after 1 inch of rain, leave the pivots off for 3 days and then start them up again.”
This past year, on a 120-acre irrigated cornfield, Godsey installed a handful of data recorders and four Decagon water-content sensors at depths ranging from zero to 40 inches.
“I like to put two sets of sensors in each field in drier areas, and one in wetter areas with better soils,” he says. “A lot of places will try and get by with one set because it can be very expensive.
“But when we’re talking about 130 acres and taking one snapshot in a single area, it’s not good enough to get an accurate reading. And if we can save even a half-inch of water per acre, it’s worth it.”
One thing Godsey learned from soil-moisture sensing is how to better manage seed populations and water application to increase productivity, especially on hilltops.
“We know traditionally, those areas aren’t going be very high yielding, so we’re identifying areas where we can reduce plant population and speed up the sprinkler to get back around quicker,” he says. “We’ve learned that on our hilltops, it’s not a quantity issue, so much as it is a timing issue.”
Based on moisture sensor data, Godsey has reduced seed populations on hilltops by about 20% — from 33,000 seeds per acre to about 24,000 seeds per acre — and seen yields increase by 10%.
“That’s probably a conservative estimate,” he says. “But we’ve seen yields improve from 170 to 180 bushels per acre to almost 200 bushels per acre.”