No-till residue has value beyond appearance

Not too many years ago, most farmers took great pride and pleasure in looking across their recently planted fields and seeing green seedlings emerging against a backdrop of black soil. That looked beautiful?still does.

Today, some farmers look across their land and see residue cover. That looks beautiful too. However, the benefits of residue can far exceed the way the field looks.

Residue cover is developed by not tilling the ground across today?s Kansas countryside.

?It?s this build up of soil structure with residues that can be a farmer?s best friend,? says Paul Jasa, University of Nebraska, extension engineer.

Jasa spoke to nearly 100 ag producers at the sixth annual No-till Workshop in Osage County July 31. Osage County Farm Bureau, Kansas Farm Bureau and No-till on the Plains, Inc. sponsored this one-day event.

Uniformity is the key to a successful no-till farming system, according to Jasa and Keith Thompson who hosted the tours on his family?s farm in Osage County. Thompson farms with his father, brothers and son.

When producers think of uniformity, they should think of it every day of the year, Jasa says. When they look at their fields, they should see uniformly spread residue, uniform soil conditions and uniform soil moisture.

Jasa is quick to note that uniformity is something producers have to work at continually over the long haul.

A producer cannot go back to conventional tillage to level residue, the extension engineer says. Level residue begins at harvest time with uniform distribution of straw and chaff.

If a producer has clumps, piles and bunches of the residue from a crop, the next implement that goes through the field will plug up.

Another important element of no-till farming involves using the moisture where it falls, Jasa says. So often producers worry about how much rain they receive.

?They should be concerned about how much water they are storing in their soil for their crop to use,? he says. ?That?s where residue is critical. It keeps the rain that falls in the fields.?

Jasa told the producers at the conference about the many times he?s heard farmers bemoaning their lack of yields on their upland crops.

?Producers say hillsides never yield because the water runs off and the bottom catches all this water and yields better,? Jasa says. ?With a long-term, uniform soil structure, no-till hillsides can yield just as well as the bottom land.?

With moisture savings, yields increase, Jasa says. Three to five extra bushels of soybeans per inch of moisture, 12 extra bushels of corn and five extra bushels of wheat.

Tour host Thompson has been continuously no-tilling since 1991. Today he?s 100 percent no till and says he?ll never go back to conventional tillage.

?The most difficult time for those beginning no-till is during the first three to five years,? Thompson says. ?That?s when anything and everything that can go wrong, will go wrong. Believe me. I know. We?ve experienced it.?

Producers tend to blame these problems on no-till without realizing it is something in their system, Thompson says.

?That?s why you need a friend or another producer who has been successful at no-till to share his experience with you,? he says. ?You can?t afford to make all the mistakes all yourself.?

While his soils don?t hold as much moisture as some, the Osage County farmer believes he may benefit from up to five days extra moisture with his no-till program.

It is the continuous no-till farming that makes the system work and causes build up of the soil structure.

Thompson labels no-till a win-win situation. In addition to the benefits he experiences on this farm, he believes it also benefits his neighbors in the city.

?Cleaner water and less dirt in the air is a plus for urban folks and for us in agriculture,? Thompson says. ?We use less chemicals. We have less cost in fuel and fertilizer and I have more time to spend with my family. That?s what it?s all about.?

John Schlageck is a leading commentator on agriculture and rural Kansas.

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