How to Deal with Cool, Wet Soils in No-Till
March 30, 2023 | By Tyler Williams, ForGround by Bayer Sustainable Systems Agronomist
Wet and cold soils during planting are a common risk in row crop production. No-till farming can be a contributor to slow warming and drying of soils; therefore, a little extra care may be needed to help reduce that risk. In addition to general in-season management modifications, such as adding seed treatments or changing relative maturities, farming methods that include residue management, cover crops, or strip-tillage can be used to help mitigate the risk of soils that may be too cold or wet at planting time. There are likely other tips or practices that can help with this scenario, but this article will focus on these three.
Managing residue is a key to any no-till system but can be especially helpful when it comes time for planting in years with cold and wet weather patterns. This can be very challenging in high-yielding, corn-on-corn scenarios where heavy residue can accumulate.
Residue management is a large topic which requires more space than this article can address. However, a few tips outlined below can help manage residue. The tips may or may not be a fit for your operation, and may need extra consideration based on field slope, planter modifications, crop rotation, nutrient availability, and other agronomic factors.
Residue Management Tips:
Residue should be distributed evenly at harvest. Uneven distribution can cause extreme variability in soil conditions and planting performance, which can lead to uneven emergence. A 200 bu/acre corn crop produces an estimated five tons of residue; therefore, the spreader should distribute the stalks and chaff to the width of the combine head.
The combine header could be kept high to leave more of the stalk standing. This can reduce the amount of residue laying on the surface and can help reduce the potential for tire damage.
Shredding the residue should be avoided because the mat created can reduce aeration and soil evaporation. Chopped residue is also at risk of "windrowing" during strong wind events in the winter and spring, especially, if the stalks are cut low. On the contrary, chopping the residue can speed up the break down process; however, the risk may outweigh the benefit.
Removing the residue completely can help alleviate some of the challenges with cool, wet soils; however, the cost in soil health, loss of nutrients, building organic matter, protecting soil surface, and sequestering carbon, among other potential benefits, may be negatively impacted. (1,2,3,4)
Cover crops, when managed correctly, can be an option to utilize the excess moisture for planting. (1,5) Species selection and termination timing can be used to increase water use by selecting an aggressive cover crop with rapid spring growth (like cereal rye) and delaying termination. (6) Terminating the cover crop early reduces the amount of soil moisture used and is recommended in dry years; however, if moisture is plentiful, as is the point of this article, consider letting the cover crop grow as close to planting as possible. For quicker growth of the cash crop, leave the residue upright after termination, rather than laying it flat. (7)
Strip-till can serve as targeted tillage for the seed bed by tilling a narrow strip at a shallow depth, but it is no longer considered no-till. Although strip- tillage destroys the soil aggregates in the strip, it can help increase soil temperature (influenced by soil moisture) and evaporation early in the spring. (1) Strip-till leaves about 70% of the residue (depending on strip width) to help protect the soil surface, reduce evaporation, and reduce wind erosion in the areas between the strips.
A two-year study by Licht and Al-Kaisi in Iowa showed a 2-2.5° F increase in soil temperature in the strip vs. no-till. (8) Another two-year study conducted in Minnesota had an average temperature increase of 3.1° F and 6.6° F in strip-till compared to no-till. (4)
Typically, strip-tillage is conducted in the fall to allow more time for the strips to warm in the spring and take advantage of the field-work window (and fertilizer application) after harvest. Please review other strip-tillage information to help determine proper strip-tilling procedures for your operation.
1.) Al-Kaisi, M. 2019. Managing wet and cold soils. Integrated Crop Management. Iowa State University Extension. https://crops.extension.iastate.edu/cropnews/2019/02/managing-wet-and-cold-soils
2.) Duiker, S. W. 2019. No-till planting begins with proper residue spreading at harvest. Penn State University Extension. https://extension.psu.edu/no-till-planting-begins-with-proper-residue-spreading-at-harvest/.
3.) Van Donk, S., Klein, R., Liu, B., Shaver, T., Stalker, A., Stockton, M., Young, S. (2012) Baling Corn Residue. University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension. Publication EC711. Retrieved from: https://extensionpublications.unl.edu/assets/pdf/ec711.pdf
4.) Nowatzki, J., Endres, G., Dejong-Hughes, J., Aakre, D. (2017) Strip Till for Field Crop Production. North Dakota State University. Publication AE1370. Revised June 2017. Retrieved from: https://www.ag.ndsu.edu/publications/crops/strip-till-for-field-crop-production/.
5.) Bjorkman, T., Cavigelli, M., Dostie, D., Faulkner, J., Knight, L. G., Mirsky, S., and Smith, B. 2016. Cover cropping to improve climate resilience. USDA Northeast Climate Hub. United States Department of Agriculture. http://climatesmartfarming.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/AdaptationFactsheet_covercrops_2016.pdf
6.) Kelley, L. 2021. Cover crop termination timing to help manage soil moisture. MSU Extension Cover Crops. Michigan State University. https://www.canr.msu.edu/news/cover-crop-termination-timing-to-help-manage-soil-moisture/.
7.) Managing Cover Crops Profitably; Third Edition. 2007. Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE). https://www.sare.org/wp-content/uploads/Managing-Cover-Crops-Profitably.pdf
8.) Licht, M. A. and Al-Kaisi, M. 2005. Strip-tillage effect on seedbed soil temperature and other soil physical properties.
Soil and Tillage Research, Volume 80, Issues 1–2, Pages 233-249, ISSN 0167-1987. ELSEVIER. ScienceDirect®.https://doi.org/10.1016/j.still.2004.03.017.
Other source: Ranson, J., Calles-Torrez, V., Daigh, A., Franzen, D., Friskop, A., Hellevang, K., Ikley, J., and Knodel, J. 2019-revised. Basics of corn production in North Dakota. A834. North Dakota State University. https://www.ag.ndsu.edu/publications/crops/basics-of-corn-production-in-north-dakota/.
Websites verified 3/8/23.
ALWAYS READ AND FOLLOW PESTICIDE LABEL DIRECTIONS. Performance may vary, from location to location and from year to year, as local growing, soil and weather conditions may vary. Growers should evaluate data from multiple locations and years whenever possible and should consider the impacts of these conditions on the grower’s fields.
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