The Northern Plains region is not a stranger to extreme weather and too much rain or too little rain is often a problem when managing crop land. In the shadow of the Rocky Mountains and thousands of miles away from any ocean, the Northern Plains can have some of the most extreme weather in North America.
Average precipitation ranges from less than 10 inches in western Wyoming and Montana to over 35 inches in southeast Nebraska. It is obvious that we can have highly variable year-to-year precipitation, but there is some concern that there will be an increase in this variability moving forward. How can a farmer prepare for this year-to-year variability? No-till management may be one answer for adapting to the impact the highly variable and highly destructive weather can have on crop production.
No-till uses a systems approach to crop production where crops are grown with minimal soil disturbance and the soil is kept covered with crop residue to conserve soil and water. Continuous no-till and crop rotation, intensity, and diversity are keys to making no-till successful and building the soil system while minimizing potential issues.
No-till is not a one-year management plan. It is continuously planting crops, every ear, without tillage to get the full benefits. Management of residue, nutrients, pests, equipment and other factors must be a part of the no-till systems approach.
For no-till, the major advantages are soil moisture conservation, erosion control, minimum fuel and labor costs, and builds soil structure and health. Some disadvantages are increased dependence on herbicides, no incorporation of fertilizer or excess residue, and slow soil warming on poorly drained soils. The advantages or disadvantages may be more or less important to each individual operation, thus play a large role in the adoption of no-till.
As a part of the i-Three Corps project, we visited Murdoch Enterprises, a long-term, no-till farming operation located in south central Nebraska. Marlin Murdoch, co-owner and operator, has been no-till farming since the mid-80s and credits no-till for their farming success during the wet and the dry years.
“As long as you keep the residue out there it seems like that helps alleviate the real extremes of being too wet or too dry…the residue is the key to any extremes that are out there.” – Marlin Murdoch, co-owner of Murdoch Enterprises
Marlin farms in an area of the state that is mostly limit-irrigated, where they are limited to 45” of irrigation water over five years (avg. 9 inches per year). In many years, this is not enough water to grow high yielding crops, or even grow a crop at all, so practices must be used to take advantage of every drop.
Marlin mentions there are multiple benefits to maintaining residue on your field. “No-till can be such an advantage because it keeps the residue on top and keeps the sun from baking the ground, causing the moisture that we do have to evaporate….. it is always better to keep the ground cooler and that residue can do that.”
No-till also protects the soil from erosion. Thunderstorms are a common site during the growing season in south central Nebraska and with that comes very heavy rainfall. The enhanced soil structure and surface residue from no-till protects the top soil from water erosion, crusting from raindrop impact and allows better infiltration.
Marlin mentions the benefits can be more than economical or environmental: “We spend less time out there for operations over the field, so it gives time to be with the family.”
The extreme weather in the Plains can’t be beaten, but management strategies can be adopted to minimize the impact of these variables and create a more economically stable operation.