High Plains No-Till Takes Patience

No-till can be a sticky issue in the semi-arid plains of western Kansas. Hard soils during wheat planting, higher operating costs that come with more intense crop rotations and chemical resistance with weeds in some areas of the state have caused some farmers to dust off the plough and bring tillage back into their cropping system.

The Kastens family near Herndon, Kan., meanwhile, has gone full no-till and hasn’t looked back. The long-term benefits of soil conservation and water efficiency, they argue, are well worth the effort.

For twin brothers Terry and Gary Kastens, who own Kastens Farms Inc., no-till was the norm ahead of the spring-planted row crops since the early 1990s, but they continued to till summer-fallowed acres. Realizing more could be gained by increasing soil quality and surface residue, they made the leap in 2002 to continuous no-till. “We’re quite committed to no-till production, and not just no-till ahead of the corn or milo rotation, but also ahead of the wheat,” says Terry, professor emeritus of agricultural economics at Kansas State University. That commitment to conserving the soil by steadily building organic matter and residue takes years of patience, but has already brought big returns to the farm. The brothers started with a dairy and diversified operation in 1973, with an emphasis on livestock. Since then, the farm has fully transitioned from livestock to crops. Today, the farm operates across three counties with the help of Terry’s son Dietrich and three employees, Lester Yoos, Chuck Felzien and Randy Most. The large acreage growth, says Gary, can mainly be attributed to no-till. The field efficiency of spraying rather than tilling lets them handle more acres. The benefits of no-till go beyond machinery efficiency, Gary adds. Improving the soil’s health produces numerous advantages, especially a better way to conserve water in a dry climate. But the leap to continuous no-till comes with a learning curve. “The first year or two, you might actually have lower yields on the wheat,” says Terry. “On the corn or the milo, you immediately got higher yields under no-till. But in the case of wheat, it takes a little bit of time. But the longer you’re in continuous no-till, the more likely your yields are going to grow.”  

All about the water Saving every drop of water and eliminating waste is the ultimate goal in no-till, adds Terry. That’s no small feat in semi-arid Rawlins County, where precipitation averages 21 inches per year with open pan evaporation rates two to three times that rate. “We run out of water before we run out of heat,” Terry says.

But given enough time and patience, a continuous no-till system greatly increases the soil’s water-holding efficiency to help a crop survive temporal droughts, says Dietrich. As soil structure improves with higher levels of organic matter and an insulating layer of crop residue on top, everything falls into place.

“A continuous no-till system keeps the active components of the soil, such as bacteria and fungi, growing constantly and converting residue to organic matter, therefore increasing the soil’s ability to store water,” Terry explains.

 

Macro- and micro-pores in the soil structure let water percolate deep into the ground, rather than pooling on top and evaporating, Dietrich adds. After five to six years of continuous no-till, fields on the Kastenses’ farm can absorb a fast 3-inch rain with virtually no runoff or long-term ponding. With more water in the soil, the Kastenses intensified their crop rotation and nearly eliminated fallowing. Fallowed acres are 5%, compared to 33% in a typical wheat-fallow rotation.

In a wheat-corn-milo-pea rotation, they’ve increased production volume to one crop per year, rather than two crops every three years. They’ve also increased their diversity and marketing opportunities. Yellow peas, relatively new to the rotation and still in the experimental phase, have the potential of being a valuable source of cattle feed in protein-deficit western Kansas.

No need for terracing

Building and maintaining terraces on sloped fields isn’t cheap. But thanks to the improved soil structure, the need for terraces has greatly diminished, says Terry. “We farm nearly 100% terraced ground,” he says. “And the longer we’ve no-tilled, the more we wished the terraces weren’t even there because they’re no longer needed. They even impede farming practices.”

Terraces built at harsh angles cause problems with spraying and planting efficiency, Terry says, with the planter inadvertently coming out of the ground and the sprayer manoeuvring around another obstacle. The Kastenses have trimmed some terraces with a grader to flatten them, resulting in a more uniform field with greater machinery efficiency.

Under continuous no-till, water rarely stands in terrace channels after a big rain. “For 30 to 40 years after we built terraces, you always had to wait for them to try dry out before you could farm through them again after a heavy rain event,” says Terry,  adding that ponds and muddy spots in terrace channels typically ended up bare.  Today, the water rarely even gets to a terrace. It soaks in before it gets there.”

While many Kansas farmers struggle to keep no-till viable on their farms as weeds, like kochia and windmill grass, become immune to chemical control, that’s yet to be a problem for this farm.

Regardless of the farming method, prevention is still the best way to manage weeds, Terry says. Whether a farmer is tilling or spraying, it is critical to stop weeds from going to seed.

One danger of no-tilling, he says, is that people aren’t as vigilant with weed control   allowing weeds to build resistance to some forms of control. Terry says resistance could make its way into Rawlins County as it has in other parts of the state. But he insists that won’t make no-till an out-dated system with alternative controls readily at hand.

High commodity prices keep costlier alternatives viable in the short term, Terry adds. Long term, those extra costs are minimal compared to the benefits of improved soil health. “The biggest benefits to be had in no-till are in the semi-arid parts of the country. That’s where you have the most gain in soil conservation and moisture savings, where every drop of water makes a difference.”

More wheat stubble boosts corn yields

Building field residue in a no-till system is the impetus behind trying to achieve bigger yields at Kastens Farms Inc. in Rawlins County. That philosophy also motivated them to switch entirely to stripper headers on their combines for harvesting wheat.

Stripper headers, which literally strip wheat heads off the stem of the plant rather than cutting them off with a draper header, leave tall, ample residue standing in the field after wheat harvest. Terry Kastens, of Kastens Farms, says for the last seven years, harvesting wheat with stripper headers has boosted their corn yields the following year.

“It was pretty clear the benefits were there,” Terry says of their on-farm studies comparing stripper headers to conventional straight-cut headers. “So, we just run three stripper headers now.”

The thick matt of wheat stubble that insulates the ground through winter and spring has boosted yields on crops following wheat by 5 to 10 bushels per acre. Most of the benefits come from reduced evaporation from the soil, says Terry. “We used to think it was because of increased snow catch, but that’s not completely true in our area,” he says, explaining that because stripper-harvested stubble tends to lie flat, the amount of snowfall accumulated over the winter is not increased significantly. Rather, the thicker stubble does a better job insulating the soil.

Move to stripper headers

Terry’s son Dietrich, who conducts much of the on-farm analysis of cropping methods, says the decision to go to stripper headers was easy. After two years of experimenting with stripper headers and comparing the results to traditional headers, the evidence was overwhelming, especially on terraced or uneven ground that is common in Rawlins County.

“If you’re cutting with a 36-foot draper, you hit that terrace and you’ll have nice stubble left behind on one side of the header and down to nothing on the other. You have no uniformity anymore,” Dietrich says. The uneven stubble and residue creates variable water evaporation and non-uniform planting conditions, which negatively affect yield for the next crop in rotation.

Alan Schlegel, agronomist at the Kansas State University Southwest Research-Extension Centre in Tribune, says research shows yields on dry land corn following wheat increase if more stubble is left in the field.

In the Tribune study, wheat was cut with a stripper header and a conventional grain platform using two different cutting heights. Compared to the high-cut wheat stubble, corn yields behind wheat stubble harvested with stripper headers increased 2.1 bushels. While the increase over high-cut wheat is not considered statistically significant (a corn yield of 5 to 6 bushels would be needed), the yield advantage compared to low-cut wheat was overwhelming. Corn yields saw a boost of 11 bushels.

However, no similar results were found with milo, Schlegel notes. In fact, milo yields behind low-cut wheat and stripped wheat were nearly the same, while high-cut wheat produced the biggest bushel return for milo.

The intense shading of the soil, Schlegel speculates, might be why milo yields are somewhat suppressed when planted in stripper-harvested stubble. “It’s possible we’re getting additional shading on the milo, and we may be reducing tillering,” he says.

A new level of management

While corn planted into thick stripper-harvested wheat stubble may perform better, the advantage comes with a learning curve. “It takes a different level of management,” Terry says, adding that planting corn in the spring can be difficult. “Your equipment has to be a little bit better in order to be able to cut through that really thick mat of residue.”

During harvest, attention must be paid to the stripper header’s rotor speed, Terry advises. During midday’s peak temperatures, the rotor has to be slowed down as the wheat loses moisture in the heat.

In other areas of Kansas, farmers using stripper headers have reported problems with the tall stubble dislodging from the soil and leaving windrows, Terry adds. In wetter areas farther east, farmers have noted problems with the stubble delaying planting in the spring. But in his experience with stripper headers, Terry says, those problems have not been an issue.

Making up for the increased level of management, though, is the increased field efficiency that comes with harvesting with a stripper header, Terry adds. Because the machine is threshing grain without the straw, stripper headers increased efficiency of the combine 15% to 20%.

Schlegel concurs with the added machinery benefits, which are more pronounced with smaller machines.

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