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Cover crops and Kansas - Part I
Dr. Victor Martin

The Drought Monitor shows little change from last week, however, the dry/droughty areas will likely expand west from the Colorado border counties with the forecast for the week involving little or no rain and the above normal temperatures of the last few days. As of this report, our area is still not even listed as abnormally dry regarding soil moisture, in great part due to the cool temperatures. The forecast is pretty ideal for drying down and harvesting fall crops over this week if the forecast holds. The six to 10 day outlook (Sept. 30 to Oct. 4) indicates well-below normal precipitation and temperatures for the region. Looking out eight to 14 days (Oct. 2 to 8) indicates more of the same. A good forecast for bringing in the fall harvest and planting the 2021 wheat crop but less than ideal precipitation.

For decades, especially in the western part of Kansas, fallow was practiced to try and store enough moisture in the soil for the next crop, typically wheat or grain sorghum. Fallow is simply defined as leaving the soil for at least one growing season and commonly practiced in areas receiving 20 inches or less of precipitation. In some cases, ground will keep devoid of vegetation for a year or even longer. Before the advent of effective herbicides this was done with tillage. While effective when done properly, multiple tillage passes were necessary and each one dried the soil.

With the advent of effective herbicides, chemical control was possible and tillage could be eliminated.

Again multiple trips were required and it could be expensive. Many producers more recently would use a combination of these two practices. While fallow could save moisture if properly managed, even the best fallow systems would only save at most 30-35% of the precipitation received. Other problems included wind and water erosion on bare soil and a decrease in soil organic matter levels. Several things occurred that started to change people’s thinking about fallow and if there was a better solution. And not just for traditional fallow areas but across the country, even in higher rainfall areas.

• Soil organic matter level decreases, especially under conventional tillage resulting in increased fertilizer costs, poorer soil structure, decreased soil water holding capacity, and increased wind and water erosion.

• For those in low rainfall areas, except under conditions of extreme drought, only capturing around one-third of the precipitation while leaving the ground bare for up to a year or longer didn’t make sense economically. What could be done to make that period useful and improve the soil?

• Decreasing and/or eliminating tillage for erosion control and soil water conservation increased in popularity but it takes time to develop a good no-till soil chemically and structurally. What could be done to speed up the process towards mature no-till fields?

• Wanting to minimize tillage, for reasons previously mentioned, meant more reliance on chemical weed control. This led to the herbicide resistance issues making headlines for well over three decades. What could be done to maintain soil surface cover, minimize and hopefully eliminate tillage, and control weed?

Next week: how cover crops seek to address these, the benefits, and the potential pitfalls.

Dr. Victor L. Martin is the agriculture instructor/coordinator for Barton Community College. He can be reached at 620-792-9207, ext. 207.