Drought isn’t a word farmers want to hear during any growing season, especially as some states wrestle with growing demand and decreasing supply of water. In particularly arid parts of the country, strip-till has proven to be an asset in not only to maximize water usage, but also increase yields.

While a large swath of the U.S., and especially the Midwest, has seen more than enough moisture fall from the skies this year, I was reminded of how precious a commodity water is when talking with Australian farmer Tony Quigley and his son, Tom, at the 2015 National Strip-Tillage Conference in Iowa City, Iowa.

The Quigleys farm 7,000 acres in New South Wales and have long practiced no-till on their dryland acres where they grow primarily wheat, canola and chick peas. But it’s been somewhat harder to perfect conservation tillage practices on their irrigated land — largely because they dedicate most acres to cotton, which is traditionally a tillage-intensive crop.

“The problem we began to see is that when we moved from furrow irrigation to a sprinkler system for cotton, water would run off on either side of the mound,” Tom says. “We had a really hard time wetting up the soil where the seeds were planted, so we’d see poor germination.”

Last year, the Quigleys moved from conventional tillage to strip-till using an eight-row Orthman 1tRIPr to help build a better seedbed and preserve precious moisture. Strip-till is very much a novelty in the Quigley’s area, and as Tony says, their motive with the practice wasn’t to warm up the soil, but rather to improve planting conditions without sacrificing soil health, and make best use of their limited water resources.

But another critical component of their strip-till system is the use of wheat stubble, planted on either side of the cotton row, to further retain moisture. “We’re planting wheat on either side of 30-inch spacings for our 40-inch cotton row,” Tom says. “We use wheat stubble as kind of a cover crop in our no-till dryland operation and wanted to apply the same principles to our irrigated, strip-tilled acres.”

Early returns for the Quigleys have been promising, as they harvested about 6½ bales per acre of cotton, which they say is one of their best yields ever. But Tony is quick to admit that they have a long way to go to perfect their strip-till system, and one of the reasons they made the trip overseas to attend the conference.

“For our first try, I feel like we got things about 80% right,” Tony says. “But we also know we still have a lot to learn.”

 What water-saving practices have you utilized in your strip-till operation? Share your story with me at (262) 777-2441, or send me an e-mail at jzemlicka@lesspub.com