Stubble, Stalks & Snow Fences: Keeping Moisture in the Fields

It should come as no surprise that moisture is always a concern in dryland farming, most especially on the semi-arid plains of northern Montana. During the spring, we pray for steady, frequent rains—heavy downpours or cloud bursts can bring rain down faster than the soil can absorb. (Though, it should be said, since our conversion to organic, the water absorption in our fields has increased!) During the winter, we pray for snow. Snow insulates our winter crops from the bitter cold and, of course, provides moisture when it melts in the spring. But on the wide-open prairie, snow will go where the wind takes it. Organic agriculture, at its most basic, is a farmer’s attempt at emulating nature. While there’s not much we can do about the rare torrential rainfall here on the farm, nature gives us clues on how to outsmart the wind and keep the snow that does fall on us—an important contributor to moisture for the next growing season—in our fields.

Here on the farm, there are grasslands as far as the eye can see in almost every direction. The prairie isn’t some barren desert. Grass provides resistance, it’s nature’s way of keeping both soil and moisture on the plains. Cultivated fields are not naturally occurring and if they are left completely bare, they offer no resistance against wind and water erosion. And no farmer wants to lose the soil that took thousands of years to accumulate.

Stubble—the short, dry stalks of the crop left in the field after harvest—provide excellent erosion resistance. Not only does stubble help protect the soil from wind and water erosion, it helps to keep at least some snowfall from blowing away. Which means more moisture in your fields come spring. And around here, that’s always good news!

But sometimes leaving stubble in a field isn’t an option. Sometimes cultivating a field in the fall is necessary. If we have a severe weed problem, for instance—we never want to let weeds to go to seed. Or, if we’re incorporating plants into the soil from a green manure field. In that case we will till the field as a normal part of our crop rotation. And while all the organic material, like leaves and stems, helps bind the soil together providing protection from wind and water erosion, it doesn’t help much with snow catch. This past fall, Charley had some concerns along these lines. The field where he’ll be planting this year’s corn patch had been recently tilled to incorporate a cover crop of peas. There was little stubble on the surface, and after the dry season we had last summer, moisture was in short supply. But, as the old English proverb reminds us, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” Charley’s solution was a few strategically-placed snow fences, and boy, did he pick a good year for that experiment! The snow fences are 4-feet tall and have nearly disappeared beneath all the snow we’ve received this winter.

Thoughtful preparations in the fall to catch snow can mean the difference of several inches of snow—or in our case this year, several feet! Here on the farm, last year’s corn patch, with its stalks still in the field, have more than a foot of snow. Whereas the neighboring field, which we tilled in the fall, has no more than a couple inches and in some places, you can see the soil. After such a dry season last year, I am very grateful for all the snow this winter and hope it will melt slowly and all soak in, providing lots of moisture for the coming spring.