Farmer Focus: No-till pinto beans hit a high yield

In December, I planted “dry beans”, better known as pinto beans. It is generally believed here, that dry beans cannot be no-tilled as they have a very weak root system.

That posed a bit of a problem for me, as I like to conserve my soil’s carbon and not disturb it. I couldn’t think of a logical reason why a dry bean could not be no-tilled, so I decided to go for it.

I then thought if these beans can grow well in a no-till situation, then surely it would do even better if it were directly drilled into a cover crop.

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Beans are sown late in the season so I allowed the weeds to grow to serve as a cover crop. I ended up planting the beans into waist-high weeds.

One week after planting we had a 65mm storm in under an hour. The deluge was so intense it washed some storm water pipes out from under the district road.

While there was damage on the roads, there was no soil washing in the bean field and no capping of the sandy soil.

Dry beans bear many of their pods on the ground and therefore cannot be harvested with a wheat header as we do with the soya beans, instead, they need to be pulled and windrowed.

This part of the operation is done by hand, 12 rows, six on either side are pulled by hand and placed in the centre windrow.

This can only be done in the morning while the beans are damp with dew. When they become dry and crispy, they pop easily and the pulling must stop. They are then combined with a normal combine and a pick-up head.

The combine operator that I contracted in to do the job was very impressed with the yield. He said they were very good, for a no-till crop.

I took offence to the last portion of that comment, but when his father asked me what my fertiliser strategy was, I realised they were genuinely properly impressed with my yield.

Bruce Shepherd farms in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. He plants 500ha of rain-fed summer crops across 3,000ha. He also runs 2,600 weaner oxen on pastures, finishing them in a feedlot with maize grown on the farm.