What is in this article?:
- No-till, cover crops helping Texas grower fight heat, drought
- Minimum-till first
- Drought-tolerant varieties
• 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.
Henderson only considers drought-tolerant varieties for his summer crops. While his crops this summer did use some of the moisture in the soil, Henderson says in the end they helped the soil retain more moisture than it could have without the crop.
Henderson carries a soil pressure probe with him to test how hard the ground is and check soil moisture. Loose, mellow soils allow plant roots to keep reaching down to find moisture. Hard, compacted soil, such as that found 8-12 inches below plowed ground, prevents roots from accessing soil moisture and nutrients at great depths, forcing them to rely strictly on rainfall and applied fertilizers.
On his no-till fields, he is able to insert the entire two-foot probe in the ground. Soil moisture is evident immediately below the surface, with greater moisture at greater depths.
As a comparison, he walks over to the wheat field of his neighbor’s, a friend of his, and does the same thing. The soil is so dry and compacted the probe can’t penetrate the surface, even with Henderson applying all his weight on it.
“This neighbor has seen the difference in our fields,” Henderson says, smiling. “He’s switching to no-till next year.”
Cashing in on the benefits
Henderson was able to harvest the seed from his sesame crop for a profit, with just a few modifications on a wheat combine, leaving the residue in the field.
Lack of moisture prevented the guar beans from making a crop, but that didn’t discourage him at all.
“The plants grew and did their job to protect and improve the soil,” Henderson says. “But we just didn’t get enough rain to have a seed harvest.
“Normally it would have really bothered me to not make a crop,” he says. “But now I’m beginning to think a cover crop is well worth the soil benefits it provides, even if you don’t get a harvest.
“I’ve already saved money in my nitrogen bill,” he continues. “And you can’t buy rain, so the fact the cover crop is why my wheat crop has access to moisture in the middle of a drought is a big deal.”
No — Henderson can’t buy rain, even when he needs it most. But he is doing everything he can to preserve soil moisture and keep producing crops despite lack of rainfall.
His soil might remain under cover, but his success with cover crops won’t. Thanks to Henderson and others like him, this new under-cover operation is gaining a lot of public attention.