No Till Notes - “20 Years of Education, part 3”

By Mark Watson, Panhandle No-Till Educator

Once we made the commitment to adopting a no till crop production system we needed to learn residue management with our equipment. We also had to determine a cropping rotation for our farm that would give us the best chance for success. Needless to say we had a few bumps along the way.

We adapted our combine to manage the residue at harvest by adding chaff spreaders to evenly distribute the chaff coming out of the back of the combine. Eventually we also adapted a stripper head to better manage the amount of residue entering the combine and leave a more even distribution of these residues across the field.

We had to learn how to manage residue and use this residue as a benefit to our soil. We used to try and manage residue and weeds with tillage and now we know how beneficial the residue is on the soil surface. The residue provides protection for the soil against the elements and improves water infiltration into the soil and suppresses weed competition.

We also learned to adopt a cropping rotation on our dry land acres that is similar to the crop rotation we used under irrigation for several years. We adopted a rotation that produces two high residue crops, winter wheat and corn every three years. The high amounts of residues we are critical to the success of our dry land no till crop production system.

We have also added a legume into our dry land cropping rotation. Adding a legume into our rotation has diversified our herbicide rotations and allowed us to break persistent weed and disease cycles. We started by looking north at the types of legumes being produced in the northern states by producers who had already adopted no till cropping practices. Legumes being grown by these northern no till producers were field peas, chick peas, and lentils. We visited with producers in these areas and decided to add field peas and chickpeas in our rotation.

In addition to these legumes we also tried dry edible beans as part of the legume portion of our crop rotation. Over time we decided the field peas were the best legume to have in our crop rotation for our farm. The other legumes use moisture later into the growing season and put our winter wheat at a real disadvantage. We have decided producing as good a winter wheat crop as we can really improves the success of our entire rotation by providing good residues which makes the whole system work.

Over the years we also tried proso millet as a substitute for corn in the warm season grass portion of our rotation. We also tried proso millet following corn prior to winter wheat planting. We encountered much the same problem as we did with the later maturing legumes in that we were putting our winter wheat crop at a real disadvantage by planting the winter wheat late and usually in dry soil. We also tried sunflowers in our crop rotation but felt they were a difficult crop to follow in our rotation.

Over the years we’ve tried numerous crops in different combinations trying to develop the proper crop rotation. We tried to hit a few home runs with chickpeas and sunflowers. These crops can both prove to be a good cash crop if there is adequate moisture during the growing season and the year following their production. We found if moisture was limited these crops were difficult to follow with a successful crop and the whole rotation’s profitability would suffer. 

We’ve settled on a 3 year rotation of winter wheat, corn, and field peas. This rotation allows us to produce the best winter wheat crop possible which sets up the rest of the rotation for success. We have two thirds of our rotation in high residue crops with the winter wheat and corn. 

Two thirds of our rotation with the winter wheat and the field peas require moisture for optimum yield at the same time that we receive the majority of our precipitation in April, May, and June. The corn gives us a warm season grass which will really produce high yields provided we receive good moisture during the summer. 

We feel this rotation gives us the best chance for success year in and year out. We also feel this rotation gives us the most profit and consistency over the length of the rotation.

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