A little crop residue goes a long way, especially in a year when drought has turned otherwise good soils to dust. That's exactly what's happening around Almena, Kansas, where Michael Thompson raises wheat, soybeans and corn in conventional tillage and no-till systems.
This year, Thompson says his farm has received just over half an inch of rain since he planted his wheat, some in conventional tillage and some in no-till. The results to this point have been staggering. "This year in the dry conditions the conventional till is blowing as well as some no-till ground that the farmers have baled off the cornstalks and milo stubble for hay," he says. "No residue on the soil surface leads to alot of blowing dirt."
Thompson says fields like this one -- common in his area -- have seen a lot of topsoil blow away. "There is some moisture in our wheat ground, but no subsoil at all," he says. "The soybean and corn ground is pretty much dry."
Here's the no-till field right next door to the one in that last photo. The 2 fields were planted on the same day and as of late November had only seen 0.60 inch of rain since planting, Thompson says.
Here are the 2 fields side-by-side. Thompson says he did get enough of a rain soon after planting to get a stand established, but the soils under conventional tillage weren't able to retain the moisture as well as the no-till soils, so many of the plants that do make it into dormancy will likely be hit by winterkill, Thompson says.
"No moisture to bring the crop up even," Thompson says of this shot. "This field has little residue and has been blowing in a very dry and windy 2012. Both fields got less than an inch of rain and were seeded on the same day."
Here's the flipside: "This is a picture of the soil moisture in a no-tilled (direct seeded) wheat field that is right next to a conventionally tilled wheat field. In a very dry dry 2012 year here," Thompson says. "Both fields have got less than an inch of rain and were seeded on the same day."
The residue Thompson relies on is in many forms. Here, a mix of Nitro radish, sudan, millet, grazing corn and cowpea helped him stave off damage from the severe heat and dryness in his area this summer (temperatures reached 118 degrees there this year). "Notice the wheat emerging in this photo," he says.
Here's a closer look at what was left of that cover crop mix in November. The mix helped prevent wind and water erosion and, even into fall, "these radish survived the haying process, the wheat drilling process and the cold temps and are still green and growing in cold fall temps," Thompson says.
Here's a shot of the soil just below the surface. "This is the tilth of the ground due to the cover crop blend as well as the radish roots loosening the soil," Thompson says. "This field is spongy feeling as you walk across it and should hold a good amount of moisture when we get it."
These radishes may not look like much from the surface, but dig a little and you see the full value of them as a cover crop long after a hard freeze. "Here's the taproot on the radish plant that will break up the hardpan in the soil and help with subsoil water storage once the crop winterkills," Thompson says.
One Kansas farmer's using no-till & cover crops to save his soil (photos by Michael Thompson).