Recently I started off my 10 tips to successful no-till crop production with a discussion on crop rotations.

I feel this is the most important consideration on your farm. Designing a crop rotation f will affect your bottom line, weed and disease cycles, and your farm’s performance well into the future. Take plenty of time each year and assess your rotation and improvements you can make in designing your rotation.

Designing a good rotation for our farm here in Nebraska has been an ongoing challenge. We’ve been utilizing a no-till system for 20-plus years and I’m still tweaking the rotation.

I like our current rotation of winter wheat, corn and field peas, then back to winter wheat. This rotation has performed well over the past several years, but I’d like to begin implementing a change. This rotation has worked well for grain production on our farm, but I think diversifying our rotation with forages for grazing is something we need to try.

Every no-till crop production meeting I’ve attended over the past several years has stressed the importance of diversity. Adding forages for cattle grazing to our operation will help us increase the diversity of the types of plants that we grow and diversify our marketing opportunities.

Adding diversified forages will also extend the time we have a living root growing in the soil. This will add more carbon into the system and improve the performance of our soils.

As I mentioned before, dryland corn is the weak link in our current rotation, as it fails to make profitable grain yields more often than I’d like to admit. We may add forages to lengthen our rotation, or substitute forages instead of corn in drier years. I think diversifying our operation by planting forages for grazing would be a positive step forward not only in our soil health benefits but also with our bottom line economically.

I think there is a need for increased forage production in our region as well. Forages for grazing cattle on our traditional crop acres would be a way for producers to rest their pastures, diversify their rotations and increase the profitability of their operations.

I read in the January 2014 issue of Nebraska Farmer magazine that Nebraska lost 110,000 acres of pastureland to irrigated row-crop production from 2007-2012. We can help fill that void by adding forages to our dry land cropping acres.

I’ve been to no-till winter conferences the past few weeks and have visited with numerous producers who have adopted forages as part of their dryland cropping rotations. These producers have solidified my belief that adding forages is good not only for the soil but also for the profitability of our operation.

I’m convinced that adding forages for grazing will not only diversify our operation, by adding the cattle market to our marketing opportunities, but also diversify the types of plants we grow. Adding these diverse forages will take our soil health to improved levels, which will benefit our operation for years to come.

My second tip for no-till crop production is to really focus on doing everything you can to produce a good winter wheat crop in your rotation. Winter wheat has long been the predominant crop in our dryland cropping systems because it performs well in our growing environment. 

I think winter wheat is crucial to no-till in our region because it gives us the opportunity to produce a consistent amount of high residues spread evenly across our fields. This sets up the rest of the rotation for success.

It’s difficult to produce a high-yielding rotation without the benefits the winter wheat residue. Field peas are the best crop I’ve found to rotate back to winter wheat for high-yielding winter wheat production. 

My third tip is to use a stripper head to manage winter wheat residue. Using a stripper header leaves wheat straw standing, which has many benefits. The tall residue catches more snow during the winter months, and it last longer into the next growing season, while residue on the soil surface breaks down faster due to being in closer proximity to soil microbial activity.

With the stripper header I’m also not relying on the combine to distribute the residue evenly after they have been cut with a more conventional header. I’ll look at more tips for no-till cropping systems in the next column.