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There is something special about new beginnings – and Texas farmer Braden Gruhlkey appreciates the experience new beginnings bring each year as he lowers his planter to the ground.

“I love planting just because it’s like you’re getting to start over. I guess it’s like a new beginning,” he explained.

Gruhlkey has been involved in planting season his entire life on his family farm in the Texas Panhandle where his dad and two brothers grow corn, cotton, wheat and seed milo in a rotation.

Long before Texans can enjoy a delicious meal or fill up their gas tank with fuel, Gruhlkey said their family is busy planning and preparing for planting season.

Something that’s top-of-mind throughout their decision-making process is water conservation. Given their farm’s location in an arid region above the Ogallala Aquifer, Gruhlkey said they do everything they can to conserve water – even selecting seeds based on their farm’s soil type and climate are key to water conservation.

He said another important step in the planning process is conducting soil tests, typically around January. The results provide them valuable insight into soil nutrient requirements and will guide their nutrient management plan to foster healthy crop growth.

As planting nears, they work in the barn prepping their planters and getting them ready for the busy season ahead. Then, they distribute a pre-emergence application in their fields to control weeds. He explained that they choose to spray pre-emergent instead of plowing to control weeds.

“Some people plow in front of the planter to kill those little weeds, and we try not to do that just from a moisture standpoint. We can have better sub-moisture if we don’t plow,” he said.

Choosing not to plow keeps the soil covered with crop residue leftover from the previous crop, which they will eventually plant seeds into. This residue not only keeps water and nutrients in the field where they want it, but also allows the soil to retain more water to support future plant growth.

Depending on rainfall, the last thing he said they do prior to planting, is pre-water their fields via irrigation. Advanced technology gives them data that allows them to irrigate precisely, providing just enough deep soil moisture to kickstart a healthy crop.

Knowing when to start planting corn is a balancing act – ensuring the soil is warm enough to germinate the seeds, but not so early that the young plants risk being damaged by frost. Depending on geographical location and climate, Texas farmers typically begin planting corn as early as January and as late as June. For the Gruhlkeys, planting typically starts at the end of April and wraps up sometime in May or June.

When it’s time to fire up the planter, the Gruhlkey family and their team of seasonal employees put in 14–16-hour days to get the crop planted. He said a typical day starts off by taking his kids to school, then he heads to the fields. While no two days are the same, he and his brothers keep the planters rolling.

“Abnormal is normal, I guess you have an idea of what you think is going to happen every day and it doesn’t pan out that way, but we try to keep it the same every day,” he said.

The process of planting is made fairly simple with the use of planters, which are quite complex in design. To ensure precision, they set a variety of settings on the computer inside their planters. Advanced technology ensures seeds are planted at the right rate to optimize the resources in the soil. Their high-tech planters are also guided by GPS to ensure seeds are planted in the right place and spacing.

Gruhlkey said the first thing they do is load the central hopper of the planter with 100 bags of corn seed at a time. Coating the seeds with talcum powder helps lubricate them so they will flow easily through the planter. When the seed is all set, he explained that there is a large fan on the central hopper that blows the seed out of delivery hoses into individual row units. Once the seed is in the row unit, there’s a mini hopper that catches the seed.

Large hydraulic vacuums suck the seed up onto a metering plate. As the metering plate rotates, it turns at a certain revolutions per minute (RPM) based on the desired plant population. Discs on the planter create a furrow in the field. The seed is released from the metering plate into a drop tube where it is knocked into the furrow, about 2-inches deep. Once in the furrow, a seed firmer gently pushes the seed into the bottom of the furrow, ensuring seed to soil contact is adequate. Lastly, a set of V-shaped closing wheels press the dirt on the sides of the trench back together, covering the seed with dirt.

He said they can also apply fertilizer based on specific nutrient needs while planting. When necessary, the planter has a fertilizer tank attached that allows them to precisely place fertilizer on top of the seed right behind the seed firmer.

With all the moving components of planting season, farmers are often faced with challenges. Equipment break downs are inevitable, but Gruhlkey said the biggest barrier they face is weather. Sometimes they are attempting to beat a rainstorm, other times they need rain and don’t get it. Any of these challenges can delay planting. He also said work/life balance is another challenge that comes with working long shifts, but they strive to keep everyone happy AND get the job done.

“The hardest thing for me, I guess is I’ve got kids that they’re playing sports and we’re planting. We have to keep the planters running and I’m trying to make it to their games or practices. I’m juggling, ‘I’ll go get on the planter now because I’m going to be gone here in a few hours and just trying to keep everybody’s schedule where we can keep equipment moving,’” he said.

Another aspect of planting that might be less obvious is the financial risk farmers take to plant a successful crop. Land, equipment, seed, fertilizer, fuel, water – all the inputs needed to prepare for and grow a crop can be expensive.

“It’s risky and there’s times where the reward’s pretty big and there’s times where there is no reward. You have to just trust God’s going to take care of you a lot of times. Especially when you farm here and you can’t really depend on the rain,” he said.

Once the crop is in the ground and growing, Gruhlkey said three primary things they do to care for it are apply fertilizer at key points, monitor and manage pests, and provide water efficiently for the crop. When their corn reaches maturity, typically at the end of September or early October, they will begin harvest season…after which, a new beginning will begin again!

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