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Annual Spring Cropping in the Pacific Northwest Low-Rainfall Region

By Sandy Miller Hays
July 20, 2007

Planting annual spring wheat, especially using no-till, is excellent for wind erosion control in the low-rainfall region of the Pacific Northwest. However, in dry years it does not pay the bills.

A joint study by Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and Washington State University (WSU) scientists on Ron Jirava's wheat farm near Ritzville, Wash., from 1997 to 2004, showed that average net returns for no-till annual spring cropping lagged behind the conventional winter wheat-summer fallow rotation by $24 to $29 an acre.

WSU's William F. Schillinger led the study. ARS participants were Ann Kennedy, a soil scientist in the ARS Land Management and Water Conservation Unit, and Tim Paulitz, a plant pathologist in the ARS Root Disease and Biological Control Research Unit, both at Pullman.

With just 11 inches of precipitation a year, parts of the Pacific Northwest are so dry that farmers traditionally plant a crop only every other year to give the soil a year in which to store enough moisture to allow another crop to grow. Many use intensive tillage, which often leaves soil exposed to erosion that causes air quality problems because of increased windborne particles.

According to WSU agricultural economist Douglas Young, returns from growing no-till spring wheat every year were competitive with the tillage-based, winter wheat-summer fallow system from 1997 to 2000, when average to above-average precipitation occurred. However, in the dry years of 2001-2004, annual no-till spring wheat yields were significantly lower than the winter wheat-summer fallow system.

This study showed that spring wheat can be successfully produced in the low-rainfall regions of the Pacific Northwest during wet years. In dry years, spring wheat is very risky, and a safer and more economical option is winter wheat-summer fallow. In related research, WSU and ARS scientists have successfully developed the ultra low soil disturbance "undercutter method" of tillage for winter wheat-summer fallow farming that represents a win-win for farmers and the environment.

Read more about the research in the July 2007 issue of Agricultural Research magazine.

ARS is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's chief scientific research agency.