Managing Through Drought Starts from the Ground Up
November 13, 2023 | By ForGround by Bayer
With drought plaguing much of the Corn Belt this year, strategies to help farmers manage through tough times can make all the difference in growing a successful crop.
The fact is managing through drought begins the second that equipment hits the field.
According to Nebraska-based Tyler Williams, a sustainable systems agronomist with the Bayer ForGround team, increasing tillage creates finer soil particles. In turn, those particles band together to form a mat.
“The key piece is airspace, pore space, particle size,” Williams explains. “When you’re running tillage over the ground, you’re breaking up aggregates, and aggregates are usually a great way for water to run down into the soil. The key with infiltration is creating a place for the water to go.” That said, reduced tillage methods have been shown to improve water infiltration.
Research conducted in Ohio compared a no-till system to minimum tillage and conventional tillage methods using a plow.(1)
“The no-till system had two to four times higher infiltration rates than that of minimum till and plow till,” Williams explains. “Cases will always exist where it doesn’t match up or where tillage infiltrates maybe the top couple of inches right after its completed. But you create that compaction layer down below at the bottom of the tillage layer, and that doesn’t allow water to flow any further down.”
Williams adds that soil type can also affect infiltration. Sandy soil can have infiltration rates more than eight-tenths of an inch per hour or more, he says. “Clay soils, though, have fine particles,” Williams notes. “Infiltration there could be less than a quarter of an inch an hour.”
With water uptake based on a plant’s root structure, Williams says early in the growing season, those roots are confined to the top few inches of the soil, where moisture is needed.
“As the plant develops and the roots get into the third and fourth foot, water storage becomes a very critical component,” Williams explains. “That’s when you wonder if the water is where it’s needed at a certain time of year.”
Williams cites this example. In Nebraska, studies conducted on the residue cover on a field in western Nebraska showed 2 1⁄2” to 5” of water was saved by having residue on the field.
“Think of what that can do for evaporation and for water holding and infiltration,” Williams says. “That bumped soybean yields on the field by eight to 10 more bushels in that no-till environment just due to the residue when compared to the bare soil plots. Residue on the top of the ground can be important to keeping that water and allowing it to get in the soil.”
While cover crops create a valuable residue that can aid infiltration, farmers should remember the plants use water.
“It’s always important in the spring to look at your water balance, the forecast and how long you should let those cover crops grow because they do use water,” Williams says.
Early in the season, moisture is important to the cash crop being grown, so Williams advises farmers to pay attention to how they use cover crops. And he says the best place to start is likely on poor performing ground.
“Those are typically the fields that can best benefit from reduced tillage or cover crops and can stand to gain the most,” Williams says. “See how it works into your system, and then start expanding it to larger acres and beyond to some of your better performing ground.”
He adds that even a 10- or 20-acre plot will provide a good measure for how the soil will respond to no-till and cover crops.
Today, planting technology, including strip-till machines, come equipped with precision automation helping farmers streamline production. Those tools and resources, though, come with an upfront investment, Williams says.
“A lot of planters come with the ability to manage residue,” he adds. “It depends on crop rotation as well.”
As farmers continually look for management strategies to add to their toolbox, knowing how to navigate the challenges of drought can start with an open mind and a conversation with a neighbor.
“There are likely many people in your area that are already practicing no-till and planting cover crops,” Williams says. “They’re good peers to learn from, and they might have that piece of equipment that you can borrow if it’s the right fit for your farm.”
Custom farming services are also available in many locations. In some states local Soil and Water Conservation Districts offer equipment rental. Bayer’s team of Sustainable Systems Agronomists are also available to assist farmers with drought management strategies, Williams says.
Many farming practices discussed in the industry today focus on reduced tillage. According to Williams, by focusing on building a healthier soil with surface residue, growers can better manage through weather extremes of both having too much and not enough moisture.
- (Kumar, S., Atsunobu, K., Lal, R., Warren, D. 2012. Long-Term Tillage and Crop Rotations for 47-49 Years Influences Hydrological Properties of Two Soils in Ohio. October 19, 2012. Soil Science Society of America Journal.)
This article was written by Trust In Food in collaboration with Bayer.
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