High Plains farmers, stung by a combination of high energy costs and low prices, will take any good news they can get. And soil moisture levels high enough to preclude pre-watering to get crops out of the ground qualifies as some of the best news they've heard lately.
“We don't recommend pre-watering this year,” says Gerald Crenwelge, soil scientist with the High Plains Underground Water Conservation District No. 1. “We've had good soaking rains, especially up in the Amarillo area, that put most producers in pretty good shape, if they haven't plowed out the moisture.”
Crenwelge says if the rainfall pattern holds through planting farmers “will be in great shape compared to a year ago. And with the price of natural gas, they can't afford to pump if they have decent moisture levels.”
He says farmers still need to conserve as much water as possible by maintaining furrow dikes and following other conservation practices. “Keep those pumps off as long as possible,” he says.
He noted that recent soil moisture evaluations indicate the High Plains area has received from two-and-a-half to four inches of rain since the first of the year. “And that does not include snow.
Most of the High Plains has recorded more than 100 percent of the normal rainfall for the past few months. Most precipitation came slow, so if farms were set up correctly, most of the moisture soaked into the soil.
“Unfortunately, some farms are not properly set up, and they lost most of the moisture. If the land is flat and the soil is not fluffed up properly, farmers can lose virtually all the rainfall,” Crenwelge says.
He noted that contour farming, furrow dikes, residue and shallow tillage all help save soil moisture.
“Contour farming, even on sloping land, will conserve moisture. And residue helps prevent wind erosion, improves soil tilth and reduces evaporation losses.”
He says cotton provides little residue and that makes “rotation with corn or grain sorghum an important consideration.”
Crenwelge says farmers should plow as little as possible as they prepare land for planting. “Shallow tillage will be better than deep. And avoid turn plows that invert the soil and bring wet soil to the surface to dry out.”
LaTisha Keller, an engineer technician with the conservation district, says furrow dikes are critical for soil moisture management. “Farmers need to maintain these dikes in the winter to capture all the rainfall they can,” she says. “Furrow dikes capture moisture and allows it to soak into the soil surface.”
Even with a good start, Crenwelge says farmers still face challenges to preserve as much moisture as possible. “Precipitation from April through June typically comes as hard, driving rain,” he says. “Farmers need to till shallowly to fluff up the soil to hold as much of that moisture as possible and continue to maintain those furrow dikes.”
He says as cotton planting time nears, soils remain wet. “That means farmers will be pressed to get a crop in quickly. Rapid land preparation tends to dry the soil out and cause compaction. Farmers should do as little tillage as possible. The shallower they go, the more residue they hold and the more moisture they save. Some surface roughness also helps hold subsequent rain.”
He says cotton land will lose moisture as growers prepare seedbeds. “Make certain to lose as little as possible.”
In season, farmers will need to be aware of moisture needs and conservation, Keller says.
“Continue to maintain furrow dikes and be as efficient with irrigation as possible. Pumping water will cost a lot of money this year.”
She says scheduling irrigation to meet crop demands will be critical. “Continue to loosen the soil to capture hard, driving rains. And irrigate with the proper amount of water at the proper time and with the correct nozzles to improve efficiency,” she says.
Pump efficiency also will save water, she says.
“Farmers have to hope for adequate rainfall during the season,” Crenwelge says, “but they also have to prepare their soil to hold it.”