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No-tillage and drought
Dr. Victor Martin

The drought monitor report as of Tuesday, April 4 indicates exceptional drought creeping further east and along the southern counties. In essence, the conditions in our area and the west are the worst in the country. The six to ten-day outlook (April 11 to 15) indicates a 80 to 90% of leaning to above normal temperatures and 33 to 40% of leaning to above normal precipitation.

The eight to 14-day outlook (April 13 to 19) indicates a 60 to 70% chance of leaning to above normal temperatures and a continued 33 to 40% chance of above normal precipitation. This temperature trend is exactly what we don’t need for already stressed wheat with limited yield potential. Not bad for corn temperature-wise but the chance of above normal rainfall isn’t enough to truly make a difference. Time is running or already out for much of the wheat in the area and not promising for dryland corn or planting dryland alfalfa. Today, let’s discuss tillage.

With these dry conditions, some producers who normally perform tillage prior to planting are considering no-till planting. Most drills and planters purchased today are equipped to be used as no-till planters. There are two types of no-till: opportunistic no-till and fields dedicated to no-till long-term. There are producers in the area eliminated tillage over twenty years ago and have great success. However, caution should be taken when considering opportunistic no-till. Before we discuss why, a little background is in order.

No-tillage systems were developed starting back in the 1960s in the eastern part of the country in states like Ohio and Kentucky. While they conserve water by not disturbing the soil and allowing residue to accumulate on the soil surface to decrease evaporation, that is a side benefit and not the primary purpose. No-till was developed in higher rainfall areas, especially for hiller terrain to prevent water runoff and erosion. And the system works as it protects the soil from rainfall impact, slows down the rainfall and allows it a better opportunity to infiltrate with the surface residue. Over time, organic matter in the top several inches increases water and nutrient holding capacity. And by not disturbing the soil, except at planting, it allows for development of soil structure, especially a continuous pore system and large pores to increase infiltration and downward water movement. This developed pore system also aids in root development and improved aeration. However, it takes time. If you start with a low organic matter soil with poor/no structure, it takes a minimum of five to ten years under ideal conditions to realize the full scope of benefits.

That last sentence is the problem this year, especially with our exceptional drought and combine with heavier soils with massive soil structure. It’s possible for it to be almost impossible to get the planter into the ground adequately to drop seed. If the soil was worked and looser, you can plant but it’s still iffy. Or sandier soils it tends to work better. The real question currently for dryland corn producers isn’t to till or not to till but to plant or not to plant. Unless soil around here receives significant rainfall over the next three weeks, grain sorghum or even soybeans might be a better option. Or with significant rainfall in late April/May perhaps switching to a shorter season corn.

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