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7816. Ford, G.L. and J.L. Krall. 1979. The history of summer fallow in Montana.. Montana Agr. Expt. Sta. Bull. 704.
This excellent publication describes the historical development of summer fallow use in dry farming in Montana and some of its consequences. Data from 1974 indicate that aboaut one-third of the cropland in the state was in summer fallow (5 million acres). In Montana, the fallow period is 14 and 21 months for winter and spring grain respectively. Results from the early 1900's indicated more profitable returns from alternate crop-fallow compared to continuous cropping. This was due to both more moisture and available nitrogen built up under fallow. Summer fallow was not widely adopted until the 1920's, when a series of very unfavorable weather years occurred and showed the risk reduction value of fallow. Serious wind erosion became a problem at that time and led to the introduction and widespread adoption of narrow alternate crop-fallow strips perpendicular to the wind direction. Fallow led to a greater decrease in soil organic matter and total nitrogen (40 and 35 % decrease) than with continuous cropping (35 and 27 % decrease). Further research found that continuous cropping made more efficient use of moisture than fallow. As nitrogen fertilizer and herbicides became available, fallow was no longer as important for these aspects. Summer fallow has also caused the development of saline seep conditions on hundreds of thousands of acres. This condition occurs where summer fallow stores more moisture than a crop uses, and the water then moves deeper in the soil profile until it hits a confining layer, causing it to move laterally with dissolved salts, and to break out as a seep further downslope. In one watershed, the percentage of total land area affected by saline seep increase from 0.1% to 19% over 30 years. Continuous cropping and use of deep-rooted plants such as alfalfa can help solve this problem. The authors propose a new approach to cropping intensity, one called "flex-cropping" in which the decision to plant a crop is based on the presence of at least 3 inches of stored soil water at seeding time. This system would reduce some of the negative effects of summer fallow while also reducing exposure to drought risk. Federal acreage restrictions under the commodity programs pose a major barrier to this approach.