Weather Adversely Effects No-Till Farms in South Dakota
What a difference one rainy, spring season can make. While central South Dakota farmers typically battle drought and erosion, this year their adversary was excessive rain and the resulting muddy fields that delayed and, in some cases, prevented planting.
Last spring when DTN visited South Dakota farmer David Gillen, the future seemed bright. Gillen — who farms near White Lake, S.D. — has worked hard since 1991 on his innovative and cutting-edge no-till practices, which have served him well. He has improved the dusty, erosion-prone soil on his land so much that he nearly doubled his yields during that time.
This year’s harvest, however, took on a shadow of gloom as last spring’s rains severely diminished harvest and the yields Gillen typically has reaped from his hard work.
Gillen has maintained a rotation of one-third corn, one-third beans and one-third wheat for 17 years. While some farmers increased their corn acreage to take advantage of record-breaking corn prices, Gillen believed improving the integrity of the soil for future generations would reap greater benefits than following the whims of the market.
But despite his successful no-till practices, Mother Nature interrupted what could have been another record-breaking season.
A year ago, the White Lake area received a whopping 14 inches of rain during the fall, Gillen said. But the trouble began in earnest when 8 more inches were received during the planting season.
The ground remained wet for so long that planting was delayed and the crops that farmers were able to plant were severely stressed because of the rain.
Some planting was critically delayed, as Gillen reported he was unable to plant corn until the third week in May. By the time some fields were dried sufficiently for planting, it was too late.
“Conditions were so wet,” Gillen said, “that half my bean and corn acres never got planted.”
Other area farmers suffered the same fate, he related, as many others failed to get all their fields planted as well.
In the fields Gillen was able to plant, wheat and beans resulted in average yields, while corn was slightly above average — around 110 bushels per acre, he said.
As part of his no-till practices, Gillen typically plants cover crops after harvest, which provide a number of benefits. Crops such as winter canola, Indian head lentils, radishes and turnips provide a dense canopy which retains moisture and allows for better air movement in the soil. The cover crops increase the microbial activity in the soil, which breaks down residue and scavenges leftover nitrogen for the following year’s corn crop. This practice also decreases the need for weed control and fertilizer.
This year Gillen planted those crops on wheat stubble, and planted wheat on bean acres after harvest. One bit of good news is the winter wheat looks strong and appears to have a good start going into winter.
Despite the rains, Gillen said he was happy with his planting choices; it was merely the rain that made those choices less profitable this season. And even with the extreme precipitation received, Gillen said he is not yet ready to give up on his no-till practices.
“You can’t change your practices because of one extreme year,” he said.
And despite this year’s losses, Gillen remains hopeful that he can continue to improve the quality of his land and that his no-till practices will continue to reap benefits.
“With the current trend yields for South Dakota, I would assume that the no-till practices will continue to increase yields,” he said.
The only practice Gillen said he may change is the cover crops, which have been an experimental practice. He said he may consider baling off the straw after the wheat, although he would still refrain from tilling the remaining stubble.
“As you get into extreme, unprofitable times, selling the straw and not going to the expense of planting a cover crop is advantageous to short-term cash,” he said.
Cheryl Warren can be reached at email@example.com.
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