No-till crops survive summer heat and drought

The benefits of no-till farming and management for soil health were on full display Sept. 5, when the South Central Kansas Residue Alliance made its annual summer crop tour of eight fields in Harper County to see firsthand how they fared at the end of a second blistering-hot, dry summer.

Lyle Frees and Terry Hodgson of the Natural Resources Conservation Service were leaders of the tour. Frees is the Kansas State agronomist with NRCS and Hodgson is a district conservation officer. More than 100 farmers from the 10 counties that make up the alliance attended the tour.

Key Points

• South Central Kansas Residue Alliance makes annual summer crop tour.

• Harper County farms on tour suffered back-to-back years of heat and drought.

• Advantage of no-till in dry weather were apparent in fields on the tour.

The South Central Kansas Residue Alliance was formed in 1985 with the goal of increasing the amount of no-till, strip-till, mulch-till and other residue management practices to reduce runoff, conserve water and promote the health of the soil.

“The goal for the healthiest soils is no disturbance of the soil, cover 100% of the time, living roots, diverse crops and careful livestock management,” Frees told the group.

Hodgson warned the group that they would not be walking out into lush, beautiful fields.

“Mother Nature has not cooperated,” he said. “Rainfall has been scarce and heat has been plentiful. It makes it pretty difficult for anything to survive. I think you will be amazed, however, at how much actually is still green — in spite of only an inch or two of rain during the hottest months of summer.”

An experiment with companion cropping

Harper County farmer Jim Robb, tried planting soybeans and corn together in a field toured by the South Central Kansas Residue Alliance in September.

Robb told the group that he harvested 44-bushel wheat on the field last year and planted the corn-bean companion crop in June. The field has had 3.2 inches of rain since June 25, but 1.6 inches of that fell the last week of August. He said he has used neither herbicide or fertilizer on the field, relying on the soybeans to provide nitrogen to the corn. He said the field, which lies next to a tree-lined creek, has proven to be a “Comfort Inn, complete with breakfast, lunch and dinner” to the local deer population. “If you check out the back half-dozen rows, they have been absolutely stripped,” he said. Robb said his plans are to harvest the corn crop for grain, but it is unlikely he will have enough soybeans to harvest.


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Sharing the row: Harper County farmer Jim Robb planted soybeans and corn into the same row to allow the soybeans to provide nitrogen for the corn. He said soil tests show the field has sufficient phosphorus and nitrogen, even though he used no commercial fertilizer.

Stripper head, air seeder and radishes

Dave Wedman offered the South Central Kansas Residue Alliance’s summer tour group a chance to see some of the machinery he says has helped make a difference on his no-till operation.

He uses a stripper head to harvest wheat, he said, because it leaves far more residue on the surface.

Wedman also uses an air seeder and a send tender that allows him to blend radish seed to plant with wheat.

“It’s just something I’m experimenting with,” he said.

He said he plants a summer cover crop behind wheat and follows it with corn in the spring rotation. His 2012 wheat crop averaged 60 bushels to the acre, he said. Wheat, harvested in May and early June, benefited from good fall and winter moisture.

Corn, which was hit by a string of 100-degree days in late June and early July, did not fare as well; the jury is still out on soybeans, which had gotten rain about a week before the tour and were just beginning to fill pods.

“If they get enough time before frost, I think I may have some pretty decent beans,” Wedman said.

District conservationist Terry Hodgson pointed out how outnumbered no-till fields were along the roads traveled by the two busloads of participants.

“I would say that Harper County is still 85% plowed,” he said. “This may be the year that convinces some of those farmers to take another look at what some of their neighbors are doing.”

Conventionally tilled fields in the area, he said, yielded almost no dryland fall crops, while the no-till farmers saw drastically reduced yields, but at least some harvest.


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hope for beans: Harper County farmer Dave Wedman (with microphone) says he has high hopes for at least some harvest of this field of no-till soybeans.

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stripper head: Cutting wheat with a stripper head, like this one, instead of a traditional combine, leaves more of the wheat straw standing on the field. Dave Wedman took the South Central Kansas Residue Alliance summer farm tour to his machine shed for a look at some of the equipment he uses.

Cover crops and windmills

On the Jim Robb farm, the South Central Kansas Residue Alliance members got a look at a field of cover crops where only 1.2 inches of rain had fallen since June 17.

The diverse mix of cover was definitely not lush. Stunted sunflowers stood maybe 2 feet tall — but somehow, they managed to bloom.

Robb said the warm-season cover mix was planted after the field was burned down with Liberty to get rid of marestail. The mix included 12% sunhemp, 17% iron and clay cowpeas, 25% male sterile sudangrass, 43% hybrid pearl millet, and 3% sunflowers to provide feed for the birds.

A total of 28.25 pounds per acre of seed was planted.

Robb said he plans to burn down the field and plant it to wheat this fall.

“With luck, we’ll get another rain or two and be planting the wheat into pretty decent moisture,” he said.

Robb’s field is also home to one of the 262 wind turbines that make up the Flat Ridge 2 Wind Farm project operated by BP. The project is under construction and expected to be operational by the end of this year. It will have a rated capacity of 419.2 megawatts.


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sharing stats: Participants in the South Central Kansas Residue Alliance summer crop tour fan out across a cover-crop field farmed by Jim Robb. Robb said the field was planted in mid-June and received only 1.6 inches of rain.

Working out the right carbon-nitrogen balance

Jim Coady has been a no-till experimenter since 2000 and a committed 100% no-tiller since 2004.

“This is my play field,” he told participants in the South Central Kansas Residue Alliance’s summer crop tour. “I own this one, so it’s the one I can experiment on.”

He said he uses a rotation of cotton to wheat to intensive cover crops to corn, grain sorghum or soybeans on the field. He said he has been working on getting the balance of carbon to nitrogen in the soil right by adjusting the cover-crop mix.

“You need more grasses that provide more cover to combat low carbon,” Fries told the group. “The ideal ratio is about 25 or 30 parts carbon to one part nitrogen. That gives you optimum soil life and residue breakdown.”

Coady’s soybean field looked promising, especially if it gets more rain later, and frost is late. His nearby field of cotton looked even better.”

Rex Friesen, an agronomist with the Southern Kansas Cotton Growers Association, said the number of bolls per row-foot is one way to estimate cotton yield.

“About 10 to 12 bolls per row-foot comes out about 500 pounds per acre,” he said. “That’s roughly one bale per acre.”

By that count, most of Coady’s cotton will yield in the range of two bales per acre, which is quite good considering the weather challenges.

Friesen answered a spatter of questions from farmers on the tour who had never grown cotton, and pointed out the curling leaves on some of the plants in Coady’s field.

“That’s what 2,4D damage looks like on cotton,” he said. “Cotton is very sensitive to 2,4D, so you have to be really, really careful when you are using chemicals around a cotton field.”

SKCGA manager Gary Feist said that most farmers in the cooperative market their cotton through the Plains Cotton Cooperative, which operates not only the warehouse and marketing pool, but also owns a textile mill in Texas and a jeans factory in Guatemala.

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GOOD COTTON: Jim Coady’s cotton has made it through the heat and drought of the summer to put on some pretty fair-sized bolls. His field, planted into intensive cover-crop residue, has been in no-till since 2004.

This article published in the October, 2012 edition of KANSAS FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2012.