Stripper headers – a new, cool tool for adapting to a changing climate (w/ video)

By Georgine Yorgey

Stripper header on a combine
Adaptations can include new equipment to handle harvest differently, like the stripper header, mounted on this combine. Photo: H. Davis

At this point, we have learned quite a bit about the likely implications of climate change for agriculture. A couple of good summaries of national implications and likely impacts in the Pacific Northwest are good places to start, if you want to get more detail.

Though significant questions remain, it’s clear that producers across our region will need to adapt to warmer and drier summers, warmer winters, and changes in when irrigation water is available. But what does that adaptation look like? That’s the question we asked when we started the “Farmer-to-Farmer” case study series. We wanted to know what strategies forward-thinking farmers in our region are already using, that could enhance resilience in the face of climate change. And we wanted to look at strategies across a number of production systems in the Pacific Northwest—dryland and irrigated cropping systems, beef production, and dairies.

Let me be clear. These farmers aren’t adopting the specific techniques we looked at because of climate change. Their primary motivations include a host of more immediate reasons—cutting costs, diversifying or enhancing revenues, coping with their farm’s environmental constraints, and sustaining the land for future generations, to name a few. But the strategies they’re using will also likely make their farms more resilient in the face of climate change—whether by storing or using soil water more efficiently, reducing disease, pest, and weed pressures, or by other means.

Working with partners at the University of Idaho and Washington State University, we now have 10 “Farmer-to-Farmer” case studies in the works, on topics ranging from diversifying dryland crops, to using deficit irrigation to maximize profits under water constraints. Each of these case studies will have both a written publication, and an accompanying short video, which we will share here as they are completed. Last year we shared the first of these case studies highlighting Eric Odberg’s use of precision nitrogen technologies.

And now we are ready to share the next 7-minute video above (the written publication is under peer review). Ron and Andy Juris are wheat farmers, and they’ve switched to a “stripper header” to harvest their wheat. A stripper header goes on the front of a combine, and is used to harvest the grain. Instead of cutting the wheat plant off as a traditional header does, the stripper header catches the heads of wheat and strips the kernels off, throwing them into the auger. Why is this important? It leaves more residue standing in the field, which cuts wind speeds and shades the soil. This reduces temperatures for the next crop’s seedlings, and conserves soil water by reducing moisture lost to evaporation and transpiration.

Wheat residue after stripper header harvest, covered with frost during January of 2014. The Jurises say that although this represents a small amount of water, they feel that every drop counts in their dry climate. Photo: A. Juris
Wheat residue after stripper header harvest, covered with frost during January of 2014. The Jurises say that although this represents a small amount of water, they feel that every drop counts in their dry climate. Photo: A. Juris

So why is this likely to help the Jurises’ farm be more resilient to a changing climate? Hotter, drier summers have the potential to increase stress. This is particularly true for fall-planted crops (which are normally planted in August and September, when temperatures are still high), so tools that help seedlings get solidly established will be critical. The Jurises’ broader strategy includes eliminating tillage and growing crops every year (rather than every other year, as is common in this dry area). Together, this increases residue and carbon inputs to the soil, and reduces carbon losses. Over time, this improves soil structure and aggregation, and increases water infiltration and water holding capacity, all features that help it nurture plant life even under the more difficult conditions that climate change is likely to bring.

You can hear more about the stripper header and how it is part of that greater strategy directly from Ron and Andy Juris. And if your curiosity is piqued, take a look at this primer sharing science findings on stripper headers and their benefits to soil moisture.

Also published in WSU CSANR Perspectives on Sustainability.

Georgine Yorgey is the Assistant Director for WSU Center for Sustaining Agriculture & Natural Resources (CSANR) and a contributing member of the Agriculture Climate Network.


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