What is in this article?:
• Three years ago Tommy Henderson took a leap of faith and made a drastic change in his farming operation.
• With encouragement from the USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) and other sources, he became a no-till farmer.
• Three years of minimum-till, followed by three years of no-till has resulted in significant improvement in the soil health in his fields.
DESPITE RECEIVING only 50 percent of his average annual rainfall, dryland wheat farmer Tommy Henderson's wheat crop is thriving thanks to three years of no-till and the cover crops he planted this past summer.
Six years ago Henderson began plowing, or tilling, his land as minimally as possible. Three years of minimum-till, followed by three years of no-till has resulted in significant improvement in the soil health in his fields, according to Henderson.
The root of his plan
As the NRCS saying goes, ‘Healthy soil is productive soil.’ Henderson’s three years of no-till management, which leaves the previous crop’s plant residue in the field, has already improved the soil structure on even his hardest clay soils, making it easy for plant roots to penetrate deep and find new moisture and nutrient layers to keep them alive.
Always interested in the relationship between soil health and plant production, Henderson obtained a degree in agronomy from Texas A&M in 1975. He became a full time farmer near his home town of Byers, Texas that same year and has been a continuous student of the land ever since.
After researching and attending several workshops on ways to improve soil health, Henderson took another leap of faith and made an additional change in his farm management program this year: he planted summer cover crops.
“I planted guar beans and sesame in my wheat fields this summer,” he says. “I wanted to plant something that would shade my soil and also be a cash crop I could hopefully harvest.”
With Henderson’s farm straddling HWY 79, a major thoroughfare from Wichita Falls, Texas, to Waurika, Okla., the unusual crops attracted quite a bit of attention and generated a lot of talk in the local coffee shops.
“I am always willing try something I believe in,” Henderson says. “But it’s usually different than what everyone else is doing, so that’s why I’m so glad to have my farming buddy Dewayne Davis along side of me doing the no-till and cover crops on his place. It’s always easier, mentally, for two people to do something like this.”
Home grown nutrients
Henderson says he chose these particular crops for their ability to leave nitrogen in the soil after they are harvested.
Over time, the plant residue in the field turns into nutrient-rich organic matter in the soil and the plants’ roots loosen the soil, allowing for deeper soil moisture and improved biological activity in the soil.
Carbon and nitrogen are two of the dominant nutrients farmers monitor in their fields. Crops are reliant on a proper balance of these nutrients to produce the best yields.
NRCS recommends an ideal carbon to nitrogen ratio of 24:1. Wheat stubble left in the field produces a carbon-to-nitrogen ration of 80:1. Thus, nitrogen has to be added to the soil to bring the ration back in balance. Cover crops in combination with no-till farming seldom require additional nitrogen to reach the ideal C:N ratio.
“In the past I have had to buy nitrogen to add to the soil,” he says. “But now, with legume crops like the guar beans, sesame seeds, cow peas and some others that have an 8:1 carbon-to-nitrogen ratio, I can essentially grow my own nitrogen.
“That is a big savings in itself,” he emphasizes.
Made in the shade
Henderson says many farmers are hesitant to plant a summer crop in the middle of a dry spell.
“Hot, dry weather is exactly why you would want to plant a summer cover crop — to protect your soil,” he says.
Henderson explains that good soil bacteria and microorganisms that feed the plants die when soil temperatures get above 130 degrees.
“In this part of the country, it gets 114 or higher nearly every summer,” Henderson says. “That means the soil is 150 degrees and you have just killed your soil microorganism community.
“On a hot summer day, would you rather be sitting outside in the glaring sun or under the shade of a tree?” he asks.
“Soil is the same way, and every time you plow up the soil, you are exposing a greater surface area to the elements,” he says.
“The leaves of the plant shade the soil and keep the moisture from evaporating,” Henderson says. “Then the roots of the plant provide avenues for any rainfall we do get to travel deep in the soil.”