Spotty Wheat Stands Stir Concern for Wind Erosion in Western Nebraska

Spotty Wheat Stands Stir Concern for Wind Erosion in Western Nebraska

Jan. 28, 2011

A dry fall across much of western Nebraska in 2010 resulted in spotty winter wheat stands. Although late moisture did manage to germinate and emerge some additional wheat plants before winter set in, ground cover in portions of many fields is low.

This creates a worrisome situation for soil erosion as we enter late winter and early spring, when strong winds can move soil particles not protected by growing wheat plants or previous crop residues. Fortunately, some of the poorest stands are in no-till fields where some previous crop residue remains to protect the soil surface. No-till disc drills had difficulty getting wheat seed planted into soil moisture last fall, which led to uneven wheat emergence.

Although no major soil erosion events have occurred so far this season, growers should be prepared to take defensive measures to prevent soil erosion before it begins. If a wheat grower has one or more fields with areas of poor stand, they may want to consider the following emergency control options before they find themselves in an erosion situation that can quickly get out of hand. However, before beginning emergency tillage operations, growers should check with their crop insurance agent.

Emergency Control Options

During winter, wheat is in a passive or dormant state and cannot recover to produce ground cover until it warms up. Although soil erosion is best handled with a long-range plan that includes maintaining vegetative ground cover, reducing field widths, and planting windbreaks, when soil starts moving unexpectedly, or conditions suggest this may occur, emergency control strategies may be needed.

The following emergency control methods are available to reduce damage from wind-induced soil erosion that already has started or is anticipated:

  • tillage to produce ridges and clods;
  • addition of crop residue;
  • application of livestock manure;
  • irrigation to increase soil moisture;
  • temporary, artificial wind barriers;
  • soil additives or spray-on adhesives.

The choice of method, or combination of methods, depends on severity of erosion, soil type, soil moisture, type of crop, stage of crop growth, and equipment or materials available.

Emergency Tillage

Illustration showing emergency tillage pattern
Figure 1. When applying emergency tillage to growing wheat, use an implement with narrow chisel or shovel point shanks placed 4-5 feet apart and drive perpendicular to the direction of the prevalent winds.

Tillage is commonly used for emergency wind erosion control, but it should be viewed as a last resort. It can be effective if done properly. The purpose of emergency tillage is to provide a rough, ridged, cloddy surface more resistant to wind erosion. Surface roughness reduces wind velocity at the soil surface and helps trap windblown soil particles. Emergency tillage is only a temporary measure because clods readily disintegrate.

When using emergency tillage in growing wheat, use an implement with narrow chisel or shovel point shanks placed 4-5 feet apart and drive perpendicular to the direction of the prevalent winds.

Where possible, use emergency tillage before soil blowing starts. Soil erodes more rapidly from abrasion by windblown soil particles than from wind that contains no soil particles. If erosion is anticipated because high winds are forecast, start emergency tillage on areas of the field most vulnerable to erosion before the wind reaches a critical speed.

If soil blowing already has started, begin emergency tillage on the upwind edge of the eroding area. Tillage in a direction perpendicular to the expected wind direction is most effective. An implement used for emergency wind erosion control should gently lift the soil, creating as many and as large of clods as possible. Disks and harrow-type implements with several ranks of closely spaced tines generally will not be effective, and should not be used.

Adjust Equipment Settings to Soil Type

In fine- or medium-textured soils, most types of chisel, lister, or broad shovel points create a ridge and bring clods to the surface. The shank and/or point should produce a gentle lifting action to bring clods to the surface and to avoid breaking them. An angled, wide point that lifts the soil usually creates larger clods and a larger ridge than a point that has a straight, narrow, vertical shape.

Narrow points, 2 to 4 inches wide, require a shank spacing of about 24 inches for best results. Wider shovels or lister bottoms that create a larger ridge can be spaced 36 to 48 inches apart. Tillage depth to produce maximum roughness generally varies between 4 and 12 inches, depending on soil conditions.

Moist or heavy soils often provide good ridges and clods with tillage depths of 4 to 8 inches. Dry or sandy soils generally require deeper tillage.

Field speed for emergency tillage depends on the implement, soil conditions, and depth of tillage. In general, slow speeds produce more clods while faster speeds provide more ridging effect. Speeds of 3 to 4 mph usually result in the most effective surface. For best results, vary both implement depth and field speed to determine the combination producing maximum overall roughness.

With sandy soils, it's often difficult to obtain effective clods and roughness, and the roughness is often short-lived. Wide shovels or lister bottoms spaced 40 to 50 inches apart usually provide the best combination of clods and ridges in sandy soil.

If more than one emergency tillage operation is anticipated, use a shallow depth (4 to 6 inches) the first time. Follow with a deeper tillage the second time, with new furrows spaced between the original furrows. Vary the face angle of the tillage tool, depth of operation, and field speed to obtain the best combination.

In Sandy Soils it usually is best to anticipate emergency tillage will be required, and time the operation to obtain the best roughness. Some operators obtain best results soon after a rainfall when the soil is moist and the implement shanks follow tractor tire tracks. Clods readily form in sandy soil when the soil surface is moist and has been lightly compacted.

Roughening wheat field
Figure 2. A winter wheat field in early spring, roughened to reduce soil loss and wind erosion damage to young wheat seedlings. The implement is equipped with 2-inch wide chisel points spaced 6 feet apart.
Close-up of roughening operation
Figure 3. This is the same field and implement pictured in Figure 2.  Good soil roughness is obtained by operating the implement perpendicular to or at an angle to both the direction of the wind and the direction of the wheat rows. This will minimize destruction or covering of young wheat plants.

Other operators prefer a soil ripper to bring up large, dry clods when subsurface soil is dry. Still others attempt to time the operation when the top two inches of soil is frozen, to bring up frozen clods. One danger is that the soil may freeze too fast or too deep before the operation is completed.

In Planted Wheat

Emergency tillage can be used in a field planted to winter wheat. If wind erosion occurs, it is better to control the damage early using emergency tillage, rather than risk losing the entire crop. Use narrow chisel points spaced 4 to 6 feet apart, 4 to 6 inches deep. Tillage direction should be perpendicular or at an angle to the wheat row to minimize plant injury.

Remember to check with your crop insurance agent before beginning emergency tillage operations.

Effects of Emergency Tillage

Data from a five-year study at two sites in Kansas suggests this type of emergency tillage has minimal effect on potential yield, but can reduce the damage to growing wheat and can reduce soil loss in moderate erosion situations. This study found emergency tillage caused the most damage to wheat yields when the wheat had just emerged. The least yield reduction was found when the tillage was done in fields with wheat plants already tillered. Emergency tillage is not effective if clods cannot be brought to the surface, and is not possible after the soil has frozen more than 2 inches deep.

For further information on this topic, please see NebGuide G2006, Emergency Wind Erosion Control.

Drew Lyon, Extension Dryland Cropping Systems Specialist, Panhandle REC, Scottsbluff
John Smith, Extension Machinery Systems Engineer, Panhandle REC, Scottsbluff
Greg Kruger, Extension Cropping Systems Specialist, West Central REC, North Platte