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No Till Notes - “Hard Lesson”

By Mark Watson, Panhandle No-Till Educator

I really learned a hard lesson from Mother Nature last week with the winds that blew through our area. I also feel like a damn fool and I’m definitely humbled. We had severe wind erosion on our farm where we planted our winter wheat behind our field peas. I never dreamed I would have such a devastating loss of soil with the amount of residue we had on the soil surface when we planted our winter wheat. Unfortunately because of my carelessness, the soil that I work with suffered the consequences.

In our region where we produce crops we farm in a very fragile environment. We are in a semi-arid desert where we farm and if we don’t really pay attention to detail or make small mistakes Mother Nature will make us pay a heavy toll. Sometimes it takes weeks or even months for our mistakes to rear their ugly head but looking back I can see where we made a critical mistake that for 20 plus years of no till has never proven to be a problem until this wind.

My mistake was not having any residue attached to the soil. We had lots of residues on the soil surface, but none were attached to the soil. We planted our field peas with our disc drill into standing corn stalks which cut the corn residue from the soil. This started our path down a treacherous slope as we continued releasing more residues from the soil.

Doing just like we’ve done every year for the past several years we used our flex head to harvest the peas. This process cut the pea residue loose from the soil. We ran the residue through the combine and wound up with a good layer of residue covering the soil surface. The problem was none of the residue was attached to the soil. The residues on the soil surface covered up the soil so well that when planting the wheat there was very little soil exposed. I never even considered the possibility of this soil suffering the wind erosion that took place last week.

The other mistake we made was assuming sometime between the harvesting of the peas and the planting of the winter wheat we would receive enough moisture to germinate the winter wheat. In our region we sometimes have periods of prolonged dry spells and we are certainly in one of those periods now. We lacked the moisture to get the winter wheat up and growing which would have helped hold the soil. 

The perfect storm materialized where we didn’t have enough moisture to get the wheat germinated and growing, the residues weren’t attached to the soil, and a sustained wind of over 70 miles per hour blew across our region. I know the helpless feeling the producers felt during the Dust Bowl as Mother Nature overwhelmed our farm with her force.

Friends and neighbors have consoled me with their comments that this was a freak occurrence and we’ll probably never see events unfold like they have this year again. I’ve always prided myself in my attempts to farm in a conservation minded manner and to conserve our valuable resources of water and soil. Last week I failed miserably but I’ll try to learn from my mistakes and vow to never repeat them.

I failed to leave residues attached to the soil surface where they would be anchored and protect the soil from the hurricane force winds we saw in our region. If I had used a stripper head to harvest the field peas and left the plant anchored to the soil I wouldn’t have the mess I have today.

 This is a lesson learned the hard way, but one I won’t forget. I’ll continue with my continuous no till crop production system because I still believe this system is the best for conserving our natural resources and profitability. I’ve also have an even greater appreciation for the forces of Mother Nature. It’s a lesson I’ll carry with me that will make me a better producer of crops tomorrow than I was last week. 

© Sheridan County Journal Star 2017