If you want confirmation that leaving residue on the soil surface is key to making no-till work, look no further than eastern Colorado.
Scott and Lyle Ravenkamp, who typically no-till corn, winter wheat, sunflowers and proso millet near Hugo, Colo., say farmers in their area are working with a very thin margin of error because topsoil is fragile, weather is unpredictable and moisture is extremely limited.
I spent a couple of days recently visiting no-tillers in this region, which is still recovering from the devastating drought of 2012. Many farmers see 12 inches or less of annual rainfall, with much of that potentially lost due to evaporation.
While summer fallow is common in their area, the Ravenkamps have nearly eliminated the practice on their farm by evaluating fields on a year-to-year basis and seeding cover crops and cash crops where they have the best chance of succeeding. They've worked black oats, triticale, peas, cereal rye and other crops into his rotation as he tries to diversify his market opportunities and build healthier soils.
As Scott and I walked through several of his fields last month, he pointed to one where leftover wheat stubble managed to catch some snow that blew across his from neighbor's fallowed wheat field last winter, storing valuable moisture for the subsequent dryland corn crop planted this year.
“You can see a line in the corn where the snow was blowing out, which tells you how critical the stubble is for catching snow in our area,” says Ravenkamp, a past president of the Colorado Conservation Tillage Association.
Whether it’s pounding rain or searing droughts, it’s never too late to appreciate the role residue plays in buffering soils, or giving troubled fields a chance to be productive again.