Editor’s Note: Drought conditions in the Corn Belt and beyond had some no-tillers concerned that 2023 could turn out as dry as 1988. The drought of 1988 was the worst in the U.S. since the Dust Bowl and led to significant crop losses, with an average corn yield of 73 bushels per acre in Illinois. Overall, the drought caused $148 billion (in today’s dollars) of damages.

No-Till Farmer’s editors revisited the 1988-89 newsletter archives to identify top tips for dealing with severe drought. Read this abridged version of the article from the January 1989 issue to learn from the past.

There's no doubt about it, the 1988 drought took its toll on no-till cropping. Unfortunately, it may have a long-term impact on the growth of no-tillage. 

However, last year's crop production problems weren't limited to no-till as other forms of conservation tillage all had their problems.

As a result, no-till doesn't deserve as much of the rap for poor yields as it has been getting in some areas.

To help you avoid some of the mistakes made with no-till last year, we asked a number of farmers and educators around the country for their ideas on what went wrong and how to correct these problems.

Didn’t see faults. Soil conservation service specialist in central Illinois Dick Dickerson says farmers expected too much last year.

“The drought hit us in early spring, there was little moisture to conserve, and the crops just couldn’t stand it. Drought conditions also decreased root penetration and the ability to take up nutrients.”

"Roots went deeper into the soil profile in search of water," says Jay Johnson, Ohio State University agronomist. "They got below the nutrient-rich zone and ran out of fertilizer and nutrients. In other words, they starved themselves to death." 

Several Key Obstacles. A combination of cold temperatures and lack of moisture in the spring didn’t promote needed root growth. Especially with no-tilling corn into sod, rainfall must supply the major portion of moisture needed to germinate seedlings.

Since seedling root systems did not develop, no-till corn and soybeans could not withstand the June and July heat and drought as well as conventionally planted crops.

Jim Beuerlein, Ohio State University agronomist, says this difference in seedling root growth usually isn't a problem, since soils contain enough moisture to compensate. But this didn't happen last year.

Early rap was bad. Jim Kinsella says no-till took a bad rap in the early part of last summer's drought.

"There were problems with it, especially by first-timers," says the Lexington, Ill., no-tiller. "But it's like playing golf the first time — you make mistakes."

One of the problems with last year’s slow start for no-tilled corn was less nitrogen penetration because of a lack of rain. This occurred because the crop was planted too shallowly or because there was less water movement in no-tilled soil.

“My neighbors, who conventionally tilled, had crops that looked good early because they worked the soil and pulled moisture up,” says Kinsella. “But their corn used a lot of water to look good early. I saved some moisture.”

Didn’t wait for moisture. John Bradley says the biggest mistake he saw farmers make in no-tilling corn and soybeans last spring was not having adequate moisture to ensure good germination and growth early. Many seeds were no-tilled where moisture was only sufficient enough to cause seeds to swell and rot.

To overcome moisture concerns, other no-tillers placed seeds deep in the soil. While moisture was adequate in these areas, the seed was too deep for emergence or growth.

“Wait for a rain and then plant. You can plant no-till quicker after a rain and germination is insured,” says the Superintendent of the Milan Experiment Station at Milan, Tenn.

"Leave them in the bag if it's too dry. Wait for rain and then plant. You can plant no-till quicker after a rain, and germination is insured."

Covers zapped moisture. With corn no-tilled into sod, Ellery Knake says yields were hurt where the legume, grass, rye, wheat or other cover crop zapped a lot of moisture out of the ground. This was especially true when farmers tried to take a hay crop off before no-tilling corn, says the University of Illinois weed scientist. 

Yet there were some good yields from no-tilling corn into legume sod. At one Illinois research location, yields for corn no-tilled into sod was the best ever. Corn following corn was poor, especially so sometimes with no-till.

"Before we rule out no-till, put in neon lights the continued increase for corn no-tilled in soybean stubble. That's where we had some of our best corn last year, and it's still a great bandwagon to be on. No-till corn after soybeans should be at the top of the list of being practical and easy for most farmers."

Three Big Concerns. John Siemens, University of Illinois ag engineer, says the 1988 drought took its toll on no-till for several reasons: 

  • Lower soil temperatures in the spring, which are typical with no-till, reduced early growth.
  • With reduced early growth, the crop was more susceptible to drought stress. 
  • In addition, soil compaction tends to increase as tillage is reduced. As a result, crop roots had a more challenging time probing for moisture in the compacted soil with no-till. 

“This doesn't mean you should lose hope for no-till," says Siemens. "No-till yields were not that much lower, especially when corn was rotated with soybeans."

Zane Helsel, University of Missouri agronomist, says there are three problems associated with the drought and no-till:

  • There was a lack of slot closure because of the hard soils and driving too fast. “More down pressure and slower planting speeds with correct this,” says Helsel.
  • Reduced weed kill. “Use herbicides that are not so dependent on soil moisture, but still control the weed spectrum or make sure of proper timing,” he suggests.
  • Burning down cover crops too late which dried out the soil. “If it is a dry spring, cover crops should be killed about 2 weeks before no-tilling,” says Hersel.

Don't Give Up! Jerry Mannering, Purdue University agronomist, doesn't see last year as a valid reason for giving up on no-till. He's convinced that over the long haul, no-till works and that 1988 was a unique year.