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How to build drought-resistant soil

Dale Strickler side-by-side cornfield with and without what straw
SEEING IS BELIEVING: The value of maintaining straw mulch is evident with these two photographs. The cornfield on the left is growing where wheat straw had been baled off yearly. The cornfield on the right is a neighboring no-till field with straw mulch.
Farmers can do better at getting moisture into the soil and keeping it there.

Images of the 1930s Dust Bowl are nearly a century old, and the images linger in our minds, but Dale Strickler doesn’t feel farmers have done enough to adapt soil management practices to keep those black-and-white images in the past.

Strickler holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in agronomy and said that people will tell you the Dust Bowl happened because “it just didn’t rain.” People of that era were defeated by the drought and what it did to their crops and their livelihood, and they felt all they could do was turn to prayer.

Not discounting the power of prayer, Strickler from Iola, Kan., said producers can and should take it upon themselves by conserving the moisture that does fall on their fields. The guest speaker during the recent South Dakota Soil Health Conference wrote a book on drought resilience in 2018, “The Drought-Resilient Farm,” and to his surprise, his book was the only one written on drought resilience since 1908. “You think that a nation torn apart by the Dust Bowl would have focused a little more attention on how to prevent another one,” he said, “but we've done precious little since then.”

Becoming a water saver

He believes that all producers can create drought-resistant soil, and not just Hugh Guise. Who is this Hugh Guise?

Strickler said that is the person all other farmers look to as being the “world’s luckiest farmer.” Strickler often hears farmers say, “We don’t get rain like Hugh Guise.” He said “Hugh Guise have all the luck. You guys have all the luck.”

Every farmer has a chance to be Hugh Guise, just by changing some of their practices, said Strickler, who is now an agronomist for Green Cover Seed based out of Bladen, Neb.

The first step, Strickler said, is to better manage the moisture that arrives by increasing rainfall infiltration, reducing evaporation, improving water-holding capacity of the soil, increasing root depth and increasing root efficiency.

“In other words, what we’re going to try to do is get it in, keep it in and get it out when we need it,” he said. Improving rainfall infiltration should be the first step. It is the most critical and one farmers tend to mess up. That’s when, Strickler said, the trouble starts.

If seeing is believing, Strickler advised taking in a demonstration of a rainfall simulator, which will show how much runoff occurs after a uniform rain across multiple soil treatments from full tillage with no cover to no-till with a cover crop. It is evident that the less soil cover, the more runoff.

“Even though the tilled soil looks loose and porous, and common sense would tell you that that loose fluffy soil would allow water to soak in, but it doesn’t,” he said. “As soon as the rain starts hitting it, it starts breaking apart those aggregates that are all fluffy and seals it up, making almost a pudding-like crust on the soil and does not let the water go down.”

An added benefit of the rainfall simulator appears when each of the previous mentioned soil treatments are further investigated to see the depth of moisture penetration. “You see that a 2-inch simulated rainfall did not penetrate 2 inches into tilled soil,” Strickler said. “Is it any wonder that we have droughts? Is it any wonder why 10 days after a rain we’re begging for another one?”

Mulch makes a difference

In addition to suggesting producers move to no-till practices, Strickler also stressed the importance of leaving mulch, to again aid in rainfall infiltration.

“The more residue you have, the more infiltration you have. Simple,” he said, pointing to research that rainfall infiltration increases drastically from 0.9 inch per hour with zero to 1,000 pounds of straw per acre, up to 2.5 inches per hour with 7,000 pounds of straw per acre.

Obviously, farmers have to decide on their management choices of baling off that straw for added revenue, versus maintaining the stubble to help future crops. On top of retaining as much mulch from a crop, Strickler suggested adding even more through the addition of cover crops to a planting rotation.

Incorporating or reintroducing livestock to add operation can also improve soil health, not only by adding the natural fertilizer, but also by promoting the growth of beneficial insects such as dung beetle that, like earthworms, will create macropores in the soil to again improve rainfall infiltration. “Livestock improve your soil,” he said.

Get it, keep it

Once water gets into the soil, the trick is to keep it there and to prevent the greatest loss through evaporation. One of the factors that increases evaporation is wind speed at the soil surface.

To prevent another Dust Bowl, in 1934 President Franklin Delano Roosevelt instituted the Great Plains Shelterbelt project, “and windbreaks were planted everywhere. And what’s happening to those now?” Strickler asked. “They’re all being taken out.”

He points to research that while there will be yield reductions in the area adjacent to the windbreak, farmers will see yield increases in the “protected zone” for 10 times the height of the tree. “Windbreaks increase yield,” Strickler said, by slowing evaporation and transpiration from the plant leaves.

Though not as tall as windbreaks or hedgerows, Strickler said research has shown that “tall” stubble also slows wind and retains moisture, and he suggested using a stripper head to harvest small grains.

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