What is in this article?:
- In the middle of one of the worst ongoing droughts in Texas history, how can Tommy Henderson remain so optimistic about his dryland winter wheat crop? Because he’s got it covered.
Tommy Henderson's wheat crop is thriving thanks to three years of no-till and the cover crops he planted in them this past summer.
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.”
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 to check soil moisture. Loose, mellow soils allow plant roots to keep reaching down to find moisture. Hard, compacted soil, such as that found 8 to 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 a friend’s wheat field 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.”