Field residue impacts the drought conditions for crop farmers

KELOLAND.com Original

PIERRE, S.D. (KELO)– This year can be compared to the drought of 1988, where it was hot early in the year and it impacted a lot of the state, said Dwayne Beck, manager of Dakota Lakes Research Farm in Pierre.

“The thing we learned to do in the 80’s and in the 90’s is to do no-till farming, especially here” Beck said. “That does some wonderful things for us in terms of stopping erosion and wind blowing and letting us get water in the ground when it does rain.”

Beck has a field of spring wheat in a rotation that is four years of high residue crops and only one year of low residue. Residue is the amount of plant left after harvest.

In general, residue is helpful during a drought because it retains moisture, Beck said.

Last year, it was low residue, peas, on the west side of the field and on the east it was soybeans. There is a visible difference in the height of the wheat because the peas stopped using water in July and they were harvested later that month. The moisture that they got late in July and August of last year went to storage to in the ground, but the soybean half of that field used all the moisture.

On the left you see the spring wheat planted on soybeans and on the right you see spring wheat planted on peas

They will have a little bit of wheat yield on the east side of that field, but not much, Beck said.

The full season crops, such as corn, soybeans and sunflowers, probably haven’t been terribly impacted as of June 28, he said during his June 28 interview.

Still, there will be an impact.

“They are going to become impacted because our bucket never got filled up over the wintertime,” he said.

The farm has had just slightly over nine inches of total precipitation, from July 1 of 2020 to June 28, 2021. Half that moisture came in July and August, Beck said. If anything was still growing during that time frame, it used that moisture.

“That’s not enough,” he said.

No-tilling is a farming practice in which the soil is disturbed as little as possible. No-till and crop residue are are intertwined.

Convention tillage moves more soil through practices such a cultivation.

When asked how farmers who conventionally till are compared to those who practice no-till during this drought are doing, Beck replied, “Well, I haven’t really looked at conventional tillers here because there are so many no-tillers here. A lot of the difference that we see is differences in how much residue they have if they no-till, if they’re really doing a good job of putting down a lot of residue.”

Back when he first started no-till farming in Redfield, since no many farmers were practicing no-till, you could see a huge different because the conventional tillage farmers just didn’t get a crop during the drought.

“I think some that of here, there are a few of them left, but generally here the guys with sorghum and corn and sunflowers, those crops are probably holding on yet,” Beck said. “The wheat is pretty much toast. Whatever they have is what they are going to have.”

The big problem was the lack of rain in September of last year to get the winter wheat started good, he said.

It’s going to probably take well above average rainfall to get a normal yield, Beck said. He does have some irrigation, and they have been using that on the farm since the first of May.

Normally, to grow a corn crop in the area, they count on having the soil moisture from the July, August and September of the previous year, plus all the normal rainfall they get during the current year, Beck said.

When asked what crops are doing the worst during the drought, Beck said. “Anything on low residue or planted into crops that grew last year, for instance, spring wheat behind sunflowers or soybeans, are having issues because they are low residue, especially soybeans, they are not good at snow catch.”

The canola does not like the heat, but not a lot of producers in the area actually grow canola, Beck said. Peas also don’t really do well in the heat. Chickpeas can handle the heat a little better. But broadleaf crops, including flax, do not like the hot conditions.

Cover cropping has always been a concern in the area because they want to keep the moisture from wheat stubble to go to the next year’s grain crop, Beck said. During a wet year, the wheat stubble can be too wet, so they use cover crops to counteract that.

The farm is trying to figure out how to continue to feed cattle during the drought, it will not bail the wheat crop into hay because it wants to retain the residue in the field, Beck said.

The thing you really have to be careful about is nitrates, Beck said. When it is really dry, crops will concentrate nitrates in the base of the plant and if you cut the plant too low you will get excessive nitrates that can kill cattle and horses.

“We encourage people to cut a little higher and then get the forage tested,” Beck said.

They did have some planned forage wheat, he said, and that was cut 6 inches high.

“This happens in South Dakota, unfortunately, the biggest problem we probably have it got hot so fast this spring the most of the pastures are not very good and they weren’t good going into the fall, that’s our biggest concern,” Beck said. “We will probably see a big sell off in some of the livestock and that will impact the ag economy for a couple of years actually because those calves that would have been born next spring aren’t going to be born.”


Jason Miller, Conservation agronomist with NRCS said the fields that have been long-term no-till and have had quite a bit of residue for a number of years or decades have been weathering the drought a little bit better than the fields than the fields that have been “worked-up.”

The small grains have really suffered in the central part of the state, Miller said, no matter if it has been conventional till or no-till. It also depends on what crops they are following in the crop rotation.

“The spring cereal behind a soybean or sunflower, they are pretty much done with,” Miller said. “Behind a field pea or something like that, that uses less water the year before, they are hanging on a little bit longer, but they are not going to last much longer either with this heat that’s come in.”

Rainfall this year, is about 49% under compared to normal as of June 28, Miller said.

One of the biggest challenges for producers is trying to plan ahead, he said. They have to decide whether or not to put up their small grain for hay and wondering how they are going to get through for this next year.

“If we don’t get a rain on these row crops in the next 10 days, especially with these high temperatures coming, it’s going to look very dire here,” Miller said.

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