Ongoing drought conditions in the Corn Belt and beyond have 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 compilation of portions of articles from 1988-89 to learn from the past.

No-Till's Bad Drought Rap Gone

Mid-March 1988 issue

Back in 1986, no-till got a bad rap with the drought that was a problem along the eastern shore of Delaware and Maryland.

When no-till failed to out-yield conventional corn after a dry spring and equally dry summer, it was generally agreed by farmers and scientists alike that this had happened because the soil had no ground moisture for no-till to conserve.

The repeated 1987 drought on the Delmarva peninsula was more severe than its 1986 predecessor and proved the point. When the 1987 summer drought followed a wet spring, corn yields with no-till outperformed yields turned in by conventionally tilled farmers.

Ecofallow Helps Beat the Drought

December 1988 issue

The name of the game in much of agriculture during 1988 was how to beat the drought. While it proved to be a tough challenge for many farmers, progressive growers in central S.D., won the game, thanks to their use of eco-fallow. 

Tom Fenenga, corn, and milo grower at Hamill, S.D., used eco-fallow as a low-till moisture-saving system. He found the system paid top dividends during an extremely dry year.

"It saved me- that's for sure," says Fenenga. "In fact, the only corn I had this year was under the eco-fallow system. The conventional corn this year did not make it at all and I cut it for silage. We got about 40-50 bushels per acre on the milo. That was good, considering the year. When a year is as hot and dry as this one has been, you've got to have done something extra for moisture, like following eco fallow."

Fenenga raised 140 acres of corn and 225 acres of milo under eco-fallow. This system means a 2-year commitment to cutting down weeds and then maintaining weed control while practicing minimum or no-till to preserve moisture.

Fenenga went to the system because of moisture savings and cutting machine costs. "One time last winter, we had wet snow and a lot of wind. But the stubble caught the snow and moisture, shaded the ground and kept the drying wind off the ground," states Fenenga.

Before he started the eco-fallow system, Fenenga spent a lot more time in the field. "We worked the stubble twice in the summer or fall before combining, then twice after harvest and we banded some herbicides. Now we've eliminated all that," he concludes.

No-Till Paid Off in Drought

December 1988 issue

Contrary to other reports, corn no-tilled in Md., survived the drought better than conventionally tilled corn. Allan Bandel, Univ. of Maryland souls specialist, says getting cover crops killed early is especially important in a dry year. This keeps the cover crop from sucking up soil moisture reserves.

Drought Will Bring Herbicide Carryover Concerns for No-Tillers

January 1989 issue

“Almost 3 out of 4 Wisconsin farmers control weeds by spreading herbicides on the soil surface after planting their crops,” says Ron Doersch, Univ. of Wisconsin weed scientist. “That approach usually works. But in about 1 in 5 years, it fails. During the 1988 drought, that method was virtually useless.”

Doersch says many research plots show no difference between where they applied pre-emergence herbicides and control plots where no herbicides were applied. The farmers with the best weed control in 1988 were those who incorporated herbicides into the soil before planting.

Doersch says areas, where the corn suffered the worst from the drought, will also be the areas hit the hardest by carryover problems.

He urges farmers who applied atrazine at 1 pound per acre or more to plant corn in those fields in 1989 and reminds growers that many herbicides, such as Bicep and Lariat, also contain atrazine. Growers should check the amounts they applied.

To minimize herbicide carryover, Dallas Peterson, North Dakota State Univ. weed scientist, suggests applying the lowest herbicide rate to provide good weed control, using band rather than broadcast applications, and even moldboard plowing before planting the next crop.

Rely on a Cover Crop to Save Moisture, Save Water

Mid-February 1989 issue

Farmers who no-till should use a crop residue cover to conserve soil moisture and to save costly water. Residue covers also protect against erosion and enhance rainfall infiltration.

Studies by Colorado State Univ. researchers show rotation with summer crops such as corn or sorghum cause the most rapid accumulation by weight of crop residue in all climates. While wheat provides the most extensive ground coverage of residue in initial years, agronomist Gary Peterson says corn and sorghum will provide adequate total ground coverage after rotations have been in place for 6 years.

Peterson says no-tillers can manage water movement in their cropping system and have partial control over potential water pollution by nitrogen.

What You Can Learn from No-Tilling in a Drought

September 1989 issue

No-till corn planted early into a cover crop suffered the greatest drought-related yield loss and no-till corn planted late recovered quicker and produced higher yields than conventional tilled corn after the rains.

“Depletion of soil water by cover crops appeared to be the most likely cause of poor no-till corn performance in Kentucky in 1988,” says Morris Bitzer, Kentucky grains specialist.

However, he also points out that it was a difficult year for conventionally tilled corn.

“The drought began in April, so water removed by the cover crops was not replenished by rainfall. No-till corn that was planted into winter cover crops had much poorer growth early in the season than cultivated corn grown without a cover crop.”

Recent studies in Kentucky, however, showed that killing the cover crop 2 or 3 weeks before planting corn may result in higher crop yields.

Bitzer cited four other reasons for poor no-till crop performance:

  • Poor nitrogen fertilizer performance due to dry soil.
  • No-till corn planted into previously compacted soil.
  • Planting too shallow in a dry year.
  • Improperly adjusted equipment for no-till corn.

Yield differences between no-till and conventional corn appeared to be greatly affected by the planting date in 1988, he says. Corn planted before April 10 suffered more from the drought than corn planted after that date.

Two conservation tillage experiments at Lexington also revealed that late-planted no-till corn yielded higher than late-planted conventional tillage corn. Yields averaged 62 bushels per acre for conventional tilled corn and 73 bushels per acre for no-till corn, concludes Bitzer.

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