No Till Notes - “Drought”

By Mark Watson, Panhandle No-Till Educator
A couple of weeks ago I toured Nebraska as part of the No till On the Plains Whirlwind Field Days group. We went to Spencer and Broken Bow for field days with approximately 100 producers attending each field day. I always enjoy traveling and visiting with producers across the state. Each area has its own challenges, but this year the common theme among all producers across the state is the devastating effects of drought.
The effects of this year’s drought are extremely severe from the raging wildfires, loss of rangeland and hay production, and loss of crops. Irrigation of crops has improved the outlook for some producers, but this cost is also significant with our groundwater resource being depleted and the added expense of nonstop irrigation. The short term weather forecasts provide little hope that this drought will weaken any time soon.
The value of leaving residue on the soil surface is evident across the state. Many producers have chopped their dry land corn crop for ensilage. While this practice will help provide feed for livestock and add some value to an otherwise devastated crop, the end results may add to a mounting problem should the drought persist.
At the Spencer field day, the value of residue left on the soil surface was very evident. We toured a producer’s farm where he uses a crop rotation similar to the one we use on our farm. His crop rotation consisted of winter wheat, corn, and soybeans. The predominant rotation in the area is corn-soybean with fewer residues in the cropping system. Some clean tillage is also used in the corn-soybean rotation.
Almost 100% of the dry land corn fields in this area were chopped for ensilage and almost no residue remains on the soil surface. Some of these fields in the sandier areas were experiencing wind erosion. The short term value of chopping the corn will be offset by the soil erosion from these fields, the loss of nutrients from taking the residue off the field, and decline in yields in the long term due to depletion of organic matter from the soil. Tillage will be required to slow down wind erosion until there is sufficient moisture to plant a cover crop, a crop of winter wheat, or plant back to soybeans next year.
The producer who planted his dry land corn into his winter wheat stubble has dry land corn that will yield in the 80 bushel per acre range. While this is well below his normal yields he will have a harvestable crop. More importantly, he will also have the residues in the field for improved water infiltration and storage when precipitation finally returns in the form of rain or snow. This residue will improve next year’s crops as well and his no till crop production system will help lessen the effects of drought. I think his neighbors will learn a hard lesson from this drought about the value of residue in the field. While the drought is having a drastic effect on everyone, I think no till crop production systems can lessen the blow.
The drought is going to prove to be an economic hardship across the state and its effects will linger for years to come. I feel fortunate that at least we have adopted a no till crop production system on our farm that will help lessen the effects of the drought by providing soil and moisture saving residues on the soil surface.
This residue will prove very beneficial when the moisture does return.

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