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Conserving Soil Moisture on the O’Connor Farm

Dirk O'Connor

Dirk O’Connor
Plevna, Montana
7,000 acres
Planting: all no-till
Covers: mixed cover crop cocktails

The summer of 2012 was one of the hottest on record in eastern Montana. Plants would not yield, and a soil thermometer measured a temperature of 100 degrees just below the soil surface. Despite the heat, the soil on Dirk O'Connor’s farm still held moisture, and the peas, sunflowers, and wheat still produced. "This [no-till] system gets us through the dry, hot times," says O'Connor, a farmer with 7,000 acres of cropland near Plevna, Mont. Nine years ago, the O'Connor farm switched to zero-till farming in order to save time, improve soil health and produce forage for their cattle.

O'Connor called the new system "a big cultural change for people who don’t like to change." However, he felt it was absolutely necessary. Before the switch, the farm had issues caused by some 80 years of tillage. The soil had difficulty holding moisture, which is especially valuable in a 12-inch precipitation zone with no irrigation. Loss of fertility, lack of soil structure and compaction layers were causing issues such as saline seeps, erosion, low moisture holding capacity and overall productivity. By working with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), O’Connor developed a new farming plan.

O'Connor rotates his wheat plantings with corn, sunflowers, lentils, peas, flax, cover crops and grazing. The farm is now able to use one combine, one air drill, and one planter to cover all 7,000 acres of cropland. The residue left from the crops holds the soil down and the moisture in. "The bottom line is the fact that we don’t fertilize our native range and it still produces," says O'Connor. "That is what we are trying to mimic on our cropland."

Ann Fischer, NRCS district conservationist in Baker, calls O'Connor "an innovative farmer in our area. Instead of treating the symptom, we're treating the source." Higher yields and saved expenses are just side benefits to O'Connor. "I'd like to see my kids take over land that is better than when I started," he says. By utilizing a low impact, cost-efficient farming system, O’Connor is well on his way to making that happen.

In this photo a sunflower is held in the hand to show the root system. The roots of a sunflower on the O'Connor farm that practices conservation tillage and crop residue management in order to better the soil health of the farm. Photo shows corn crop with volunteer soybeans and residue from previous crop.

O'Connor's corn crop, with volunteer soy bean plants growing next to the corn. Litter/residue from the field's previous crop covers the soil.

Photo shows combine harvesting green peas and loading them into a semi. The 2012 crop of green peas is harvested. Photo shows harvested green peas in the hand. Green peas, July 2012.