Understanding Soil Water Capture and Use in Very Tall Stubble

Progress report for GW23-255

Project Type: Graduate Student
Funds awarded in 2023: $30,000.00
Projected End Date: 07/31/2025
Grant Recipient: Montana State University
Region: Western
State: Montana
Graduate Student:
Principal Investigator:
Dr. Perry Miller
Montana State University
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Project Information


Dryland cropping systems are often water-limited in the northern great plains. Increasing soil-moisture retention is critical to support crops throughout the growing season, especially in times of drought. Stripper header technology, a new harvesting method that leaves full length stubble intact in the field, could improve soil water capture and water-use-efficiency (WUE) by obstructing wind, trapping snow, and decreasing evaporation. This research aims to assess the differences in snow-trap potential and WUE of pulse crops planted in two scenarios: traditionally combined short cereal stubble (<6 inches) and full-length cereal stubble harvested via a stripper header. Results from this research will be shared with producers and extension personnel via outreach programs and eventually a MontGuide.

Project Objectives:
  1. Investigate temporal aspects of snow trap and in-season water capture and use comparing very tall to short stubble.
  2. Inform producers on the value of stripper header technology to help achieve sustainability goals.

Fall 2023:

Producer engagement – producers were identified for collaboration and field sites were established. In November 2023, 12 Sentex soil moisture sensors were installed at each field location (Diekhans’ of Geraldine, MT, and Grove’s of Moccasin, MT). The sensors were left in the ground for the duration of the winter until spring planting, recording moisture and temperature measurements at the following depths: 2, 6, 10, 14, 18 and 22 in.

Winter 23-24:

Snow core samples were taken twice during the winter at each location. Sampling dates were as follows: January 22 and February 20, 2024.

Spring 2024:

Sentex sensors were removed on April 9th prior to pulse crop planting to avoid any damage caused by farm equipment. Immediately following planting, the sensors will be reinstalled for the duration of the growing season to provide a temporal pattern of soil moisture during the growing season.

Summer 2024:

Sentex sensors will be removed one week prior to pulse crop harvest, where 3-square-meter yield samples will be collected by hand. Additionally, field-scale yield data will be collected from the producers’ combines. Both types of yield data will be analyzed to compare pulse crop WUE between short and tall stubble plots.


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Paul Nugent (Researcher)
  • Chris Diekhans - Producer
  • Greg Grove - Producer


Materials and methods:

Research Methods and Analysis:

Initial soil moisture content was measured at the study sites with a Paul Brown probe on 11/8/23 so that the over-winter soil water gain can be accounted (Brown 1959). Diekhans’ farm consists of a 160-ac field divided in half for each stubble height where samples will be taken with short and tall stubble for comparison. Grove’s farm consists of a single field (120-ac) comprised of six-100 yd wide strips of alternating short and tall stubble. A statistical procedure called pseudo-replication will be used for determining sampling locations from a 100-yd grid pattern (Bricklemyer et al. 2007).

Snow cores were taken via a Federal Snow Sampler (Fig. 1) at two different dates (Jan. 22 and Feb. 20) during the winter to measure snow-water equivalence (SWE) and snow depth to assess how snow water storage varies between fields with short and tall stubble. At the emergence of spring once the snow has melted, soil moisture was again assessed with a Paul Brown Probe to determine the change in soil moisture compared to the fall the measure stored water from the winter snowpack. Paul brown probing was limited to Diekhans’ location only as the Grove’s field site has a cobble layer at ~12 in in depth that the probes cannot penetrate.

12 Sentex soil moisture probes will be placed in the soil for the duration of the growing season at five depths (2, 6, 10, 14, 18, 22 in) at each location, gathering soil moisture and temperature data than can then be compared between short and tall stubble heights. These probes are provided in collaboration with Dr. Paul Nugent through his grant Quantifying the spectral response of specialty crops (pulses) to soil acidity, funded by the Specialty Crop Block Grant (SCBG) program.  Pulse crop yields will be measured at harvest to assess any differences between the pulse crops planted in short stubble versus tall stubble and to explicitly calculate WUE. WUE, in the context of this experiment, is calculated as dry matter yield divided by soil water depletion plus the total precipitation that occurred between seeding and harvest dates.

Pulse Crop Yield Analysis: Following physiological maturity of the pulse field and approximately one week prior to field scale harvest by the producer for spatial yield data, 3-square-meter yield samples will be measured by hand at each location. Spatial grain yield data will also be collected through each producers’ in-combine grain yield monitor, allowing for further comparison of stubble impact on yield.

Research results and discussion:

The 2023-2024 winter in Central Montana was far below average in terms of snowpack and precipitation. Historic data (a 20-year average from 1997-2017), collected from NOAA, showed that Moccasin, MT, receives an average of 9.91 cm of water during the winter months (November-March). According to the Montana State Geographic Information Library, Central Montana only received 65% of its average annual snowpack during the 2023-2024 winter. The Central Agricultural Experiment Station, located in Moccasin, MT, received 4.78 cm of water from November 1st to March 31st, 2024, resulting in a very minimal snowpack and only 48% of the average winter precipitation.

A linear regression model was fitted to predict the snow water equivalence (SWE) based on stubble height and sensor location using the following formula: SWE= β0 ​+ β1 ​× stubble + β2 ​× sensor + ϵ. Measured SWE was numerically greater on average in tall vs short stubble, showing P-values of 0.34 and 0.63 for the Diekhans’ and Grove’s field sites respectively (Fig. 1).

Figure 1: SWE comparisons for short and tall stubble at both locations.

Additionally, a linear regression model (Moisture depth = β0 ​+ β1 ​× stubble + ϵ) was fitted to assess any effects stubble height had on soil moisture depth. Paul Brown Probe measurements were negated at the Grove’s site as there is a shallow cobble layer (~12 in) that the probes cannot penetrate. A P-value = 0.065 was found from spring sampling when comparing the probe depths in tall vs. short stubble, with moisture depths averaging an additional 2-in in tall stubble (Fig. 2).

Figure 1: SWE comparisons for short and tall stubble at both locations

Figure 2: Paul Brown Probe comparisons for short and tall stubble at Diekhans’ location.


Bricklemyer, R.S., P.R. Miller, P.J. Turk, K. Paustian, T. Keck, and G. Nielsen. 2007. Sensitivity of the Century model to scale-related soil texture variability. Soil Sci. Soc. Am. J. 71: 784-792

Brown, P.L. 1959. Soil moisture holds the key! Crops Soils, Vol. 11, no. 9. ASA, Madison, WI.

Cutforth, H.W., B. G. McConkey, D. Ulrich, P. R. Miller, and S. V. Angadi. 2002. Yield and water use efficiency of pulses seeded directly into standing stubble in the semiarid Canadian prairie. Canadian Journal of Plant Science 82(4): 681-686.

McMaster, G.S., Aiken, R.M. and Nielsen, D.C. 2000. Optimizing Wheat Harvest Cutting Height for Harvest Efficiency and Soil and Water Conservation. Agronomy Journal., 92: 1104-1108.

Meers, Scott Byron. 2005. Impact of harvest operations on parasitism of the wheat stem sawfly, Cephus cinctus Norton (Hymenoptera: Cephidae). Montana State Univ. M.Sc. thesis. 129 pp. https://scholarworks.montana.edu/xmlui/handle/1/1853

Michaelis, K. D., M.F. Virgil, and W.B. Henry. 2015. Crop Yields: Stripper Header Technology vs. Conventional Header Technology. Undergraduate Research Journal: Vol. 19 , Article 4.

Nielsen, D.C., P.W. Unger, and P.R. Miller. 2005. Efficient water use in dryland cropping systems in the Great Plains. Agronomy Journal 372:364–72.




Participation Summary
2 Producers participating in research

Research Outcomes

No research outcomes

Education and Outreach

Participation Summary:

2 Ag professionals participated
Education and outreach methods and analyses:

Education and outreach methods and analyses

Dr. Perry Miller, Dr. Adam Sigler and I will present research findings and recommendations from this project to a wide variety of audiences and professional groups, including producers, research faculty, fellow students, Extension personnel.

  1. MontGuide - MSU Extension MontGuides offer current information in a concise format on many agricultural topics. A MontGuide will be produced to inform producers directly of the economic and ecologic benefits of stripper headers. After MontGuides are published, there are a variety of outreach options through MSU Extension (direct mail to county offices, presentation at agent updates, etc.) to get the information to county Extension agents for distribution.
  2. Northern Pulse Growers Association annual meeting - The Northern Pulse Growers Association (NPGA) is a membership organization representing Montana and North Dakota pulse producers that diligently works to develop new markets, coordinate research, and educate growers on the pulse industry. Results from this research will be shared and distributed among stakeholders and producers at this function.
  3. Montana Grain Growers Association annual meeting - The Montana Grain Growers Association is recognized as a grain industry leader and is the only organization dedicated solely to representing the interests of Montana wheat and barley producers. Results from this research will be shared and distributed among producers and stakeholders at this function.
Education and outreach results:

The project is too early in its stage for outreach results at this time.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.