With much of the country suffering from a lack of moisture, it’s a good time to think about the many benefits no-till offers in capturing valuable moisture from snow cover. This is also linked to the height of standing stubble left in your no-tilled fields after harvest and the impact it can have on capturing winter moisture.

Managing Standing Stubble

Agricultural Research Service soil scientist David Huggins says having a smooth blanket of snow this winter can definitely boost dryland crop productivity next summer. And the researcher at Pullman, Wash., says no-till is one of the best ways to get that blanketed snow coverage.

Huggins looked at two farms with hilly topography in the Palouse region of eastern Washington. One farm has been under continuous no-till since 1999, while fields on the other farm continue to be conventionally tilled. For 2 years, Huggins and his crew measured snow depth, density, soil water storage and residue height at hundreds of points across fields at both farms.

Huggins found standing wheat residue on the no-till farm significantly increased the amount and uniformity of snow cover. Snow depths on the no-tilled fields ranged from 4 to 39 inches with an average depth of 11 inches.

Snow depths on the conventionally tilled fields ranged from 0 to 56 inches, but with an average depth of only 8½ inches.

“The snow distribution pattern with no-till made soil water distribution more uniform and increased soil water recharge rates,” says Huggins. “The more uniform snow distribution under no-till was particularly apparent for ridge tops and steep south-facing slopes where there was typically 4 to 8 inches more snow on conventionally tilled fields.”

With conventional tillage, snow blows off the ridge tops. It then accumulates as large drifts on north slopes and in bottom areas. The larger amount of snow cover found on conventionally tilled north slopes can dramatically slow crop growth and development.

More Snow, More Dollars

Huggins determined the increased soil water storage with no-till increased the winter wheat yield potential by 13 bushels on ridge tops, 6 bushels on south-facing slopes and by 3 bushels per acre in the valleys.

As a result, farmers no-tilling in the Palouse area could increase winter wheat profits by an average of $30 per acre and by as much as $54 per acre in ridge-top areas.

Huggins says farmers impacted by the 2012 drought can benefit from no-tilling to boost the amount and uniformity of snow cover. This will lead to higher soil water recharge rates and increased soil moisture storage, which will definitely help drought-stricken fields.

“One of the benefits of no-till is that crop residue left standing on the soil surface can insulate the soil from water evaporation and trap snow to provide more stored water,” Huggins concludes.