Even with recent rains, soil profile still dry

Gary Schuler lives with a conciousness that this area of Kansas is never more than three weeks from a drought.

Some relatively shallow soil, and the dry, hot winds that can blow this way could return last year’s conditions too fast. Schuler said some farm practices could slow effects of a return, including some that many persons aren’t trying.

Even with abundant rains so far this spring and summer, Schuler, district conservationist for the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service, said the area still isn’t completely recovered from the last two years of drought.

People to the west still suffer from a lack of moisture, and the little signs of problems are here even while farmers hope for a temporary dry period to get work done.

Brad Putter, salesman for Marion Equipment Inc., confirmed news reports in conversations with friends at Dodge City and Kinsley that most of Western Kansas still is experiencing the lowest rainfall amounts recorded in the past 126 years, averaging two inches less than even the lowest rainfall years of the “dirty ’30s.”

Putter said the friends say the old tree shelter-belts they counted on for wind protection and moisture conservation are beginning to die for lack of water.

Persons contacted in the mountains of Colorado and New Mexico, where the forest fires continue, said weather bureau forcasts are calling for another three to four weeks without rain.

Farm ponds here seem to drop from full a little fast perhaps indicating a still-depleted subsoil pulling the water down. Schuler said this combines with a warm high-evaporation time of year and soil that is still suffering moisture depletion even when the very top soil is wet.

He explained, “We’re still looking at a lot of land, including grass land, that doesn’t have a full-moisture soil profile yet.”

The profile is the layers of soil left by the geologic activities that formed them, “levels down to the parent material, rock or shale that it developed from.

“In Marion County there are places, especially in the east, where it’s a foot or less thick down to limestone while in other places, it can be four or five feet deep. We have 30-some different types of soil in the county.

“Ideally, the soil profile would be three- or four-feet deep. There’s been a lot of soil lost to erosion.

“We’ve been getting some runoff that’s filled some ponds, but it takes a while to build up.”

Schuler noted that conditions for an individual parcel of land vary according not only to soil but the uses made of it.

For instance, bromegrass is cool season and began to grow early, drawing larger amounts of moisture, while the weather pattern to more rainfall was changing. A person digging postholes in brome may find the soil there relatively dry as a result, he said.

In contrast, native grasses are warm season, and began growing later after the rain began before drawing moisture down. Schuler said soil from postholes dug in the native grass would be more moist.

“I’d say we need several good soaking rains to get that moisture down in the soil-a good general rain that comes slow,” Schuler said.

“Of course we need some drying out first to harvest wheat, put up hay and get some crops in. But hopefully, we’ll continue to get good precipitation. We don’t want to shut it off.

“Our soils dry out quickly.”

Schuler said the newer methods of minimum tillage and no tillage for crops are valuable in saving the soil to conserve moisture. The methods leave more plant material on the ground, so that less washing occurs, and more organic matter that helps hold moisture is left.

In contrast, traditional methods of tilling land leave it unprotected from hard rain, sometimes washing soils down to clays with low organic matter that dry out quickly.

Schuler said a rain simulating machine his office demonstrates, in schools and at events, shows dramatically how rain drops seal off tilled high-clay soils fast, shutting off water penetration.

He explained that crop residues and growing plants break up the splash of the raindrops to halt erosion, slow water run-off and allow more water penetration, which becomes more beneficial as organic material builds to hold moisture.

Schuler finds that many agricultural producers are accepting the reduced tillage methods along with longer-traditioned practices such as building terraces, waterways and ponds to conserve moisture.

He said another practice that helps is catching on more slowly.

Schuler said tree rows are one of the best things available to slow the drying effects of heat and wind. He regretted that too many hedge rows and trees along streams have been removed because competition from tree roots sapped crop nutrients and took moisture, although university research shows the trees conserve moisture further into the field to make up for it.

The trees also hold snow to allow it to soak in.

He said research is bearing up the wisdom of “old-timers” who first planted hedge rows and other windbreaks.

Now, a tool is more easily available to enable farmers “to enjoy the best of both worlds,” keeping the trees or planting new ones while preventing them from sapping any crops, Schuler said.

The tool is a tree root plow. Quail Unlimited, in the interest of providing more habitat for wildlife, has donated a tree plow for local use available at Marion Equipment, the John Deere dealership on North Cedar in Marion. Schuler said farmers are finding the first use of the plow very encouraging.

Steve Wear, general manager at Marion Equipment, confirmed the tree plow is available to use by land owners free with charges of $10 for loading and $10 for unloading the tool for transport.

Putter said the tree plow isn’t really a plow like a traditional moldboard plow, but more like a single large chisel ripper going 25 inches deep.

The tree plow has proved so successful that Putter said the equipment company has sold several as a result of first use of the Quail Unlimited plow.

Two passes are required along the line of a tree row to cut tree roots that reach further into a field-with the tractor pulling the plow more deeply the second time through, Putter said.

Tractors down to 45 horsepower can pull the plow, although those at the lower end may require an extra pass, he said.

Putter said the tree plow is being haled as one more thing to help halt wind erosion and preserve moisture.

John Deere requires that the equipment company also service areas of Harvey, Chase, Saline, Greenwood, Morris and Dickinson Counties. So the promotion of the tree plow locally may go beyond Marion County’s borders.

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