In case you haven’t heard, the list of states falling victim to drought conditions has expanded beyond the Southern Plains.
California farmers have been dealing with a lingering drought, in a state where water availability for agricultural use is already a big issue. Experts say the drought in California could cost the ag industry $2.2 billion.
But some farmers there are finding no-till and modern irrigation methods can help them get more crop production from each drop of water. Oakland, Calif., writer and blogger Olivia Maki reports that Paul and Elizabeth Kaiser, who grow more than 100 kinds of vegetables on only 8 acres, parted with their tractor and plow 7 years ago. After dealing with a 2-year transition period, they credit no-till with boosting soil organic-matter levels from 2.3% to more than 6% at a 12-inch depth.
Taking advantage of the improved waterholding capacity of no-tilled soils, Singing Frog Farms uses drip irrigation to water crops every 5 to 6 days, and they’re still able to grow dryland tomatoes.
This is a good reminder of how no-till practices serve as a buffer to intense weather events. The Institute for Atmospheric and Climate Science in Switzerland released a study in July suggesting no-till practices can lower surface temperatures by as much as 4 F during summer months, reducing moisture evaporation in the top 2 inches of soil.
This is a good place to remind everyone that the water infiltration rate for untilled soil is 5.6 inches an hour, according to the NRCS, compared to 2.6 inches with conventionally tilled soils. Think about this:
What could you do in the Southern Plains — where evaporative demand is very high — with an extra 3 inches of soil water dumped by big thunderstorms?
The no-till movement in California is interesting in that many organic farmers there who are against using herbicides also rely on tillage to kill weeds, potentially degrading soils as they strive to farm chemical free.
As farmers look for ways to deal with weather extremes, Paul urges them to “think outside the tillage box.”
“No-till is so vastly different from the past 10,000 years of farming,” he tells Maki, “that one has to really commit to understanding soil science, soil biology and ecology.”
Of course, adopting no-till on farms that span thousands of acres presents a major challenge. But it’s been done before, and I think this small-farm example illustrates why no-till will likely be needed in the coming decades to deal with intense weather cycles.