College News

Ag Instructor Vic Martin: Making the Most of Soil Moisture

Great Bend Tribune
Published January 15, 2023

The drought monitor report as of Tuesday, January 10 no change as we are still in the grips of extreme drought.  Again, there is little hope for any change in conditions in the short or even long term.  The six to ten-day outlook (January 17 to 21) indicates a 40 to 50% chance of above normal temperatures and 40 to 50% chance of above normal precipitation, which isn’t much to begin with. The eight to fourteen-day outlook (January 19 to 25) indicates near normal temperatures and a continued 33 to 40% chance of above normal precipitation.  No much but hopefully this indicates a more active precipitation pattern.

We are in the grips of a long-term drought and most of the western half of the state is in extreme and exceptional drought.  As of today, the long-range forecast isn’t promising for it ease anytime soon.  We are still going to plant crops and try to pasture cattle.  So, what can be done to make the most of the soil moisture we currently have and will hopefully receive?

The primary goal is to minimize losing the moisture that’s there and store the precipitation that might fall.  Here we go.

  • Minimize soil disturbance.  Any tillage, especially aggressive tillage as early as possible.  If you must use tillage for weed control, sweeps or an undercutter are preferable.  Vertical tillage, if possible, is the best option with hard ground difficult to plant into and it can help with the infiltration of precipitation.  Strip tillage is also a good option for hard ground but should be done as early as possible.  Leave as much residue on the soil surface as possible to decrease evaporation and keep the soil cooler when temperatures warm.
  • Weed control is another key, hopefully chemically and with minimum or no tillage.  Starting with a weed free seedbed, planting as early as possible to establish the crop canopy, and using a preemergence herbicide to help the crop outcompete weeds.  The best weed control is a vigorously growing crop.
  • Select earlier maturing varieties and hybrids.  The don’t have as high a yield potential but they use less water on the vegetative stage of growth leaving more for flowering.  The downside is naturally lower yield potential and less vegetative growth for silage but you have a greater chance of a decent crop and economic yield.
  • Back off a little on the population.  Most summer row crops will compensate to a degree for a lower when conditions improve, especially soybeans and to an extent grain sorghum. 
  • Proper fertility is also key for your expected yield goal.  Too little and you are wasting water as you lose yield potential.  Too much and you can waste water on excessive vegetative growth.
  • Plant as early as practical to try and avoid when the worst heat and moisture conditions typically occur.  Along with selecting an earlier maturing hybrid/variety you have the best chance of a decent crop.
  • Monitor for and be prepared to control insects and diseases as plant injury decreases water efficiency yield.  If problems occur, before spending money on treatment, evaluate yield potential while looking at the weather outlook and decide if it’s economical.