Saving the soil
WORTHINGTON -- A wind advisory issued for today and a forecast for potentially heavy rains as early as Wednesday have the potential to wreak even more havoc on eroding topsoil across southwest Minnesota's farmland.
On Monday, staff at the Nobles Soil and Water Conservation District and Natural Resources Conservation Service looked over photographs taken as high winds blasted the region late last week, as well as pictures from the May 4 storm that dumped several inches of rain locally in less than an hour's time. The combination of those two events has farmers wondering what more they can do to save their soil.
"There's things that we can't control and things that we can control when it comes to erosion," NRCS district conservationist Stephanie McLain said. "Storm events, the timing and the amount of rain that we get -- that's out of our control. The things we can control (are) on the landscape -- what the fields look like when these storm events come and how a producer can prevent the storm events from being such a catastrophic thing."
Conservation projects like installation of terraces and waterways, as well as producers leaving residue on the land and utilizing reduced tillage methods, can all play a role in keeping topsoil in its place, rather than in road ditches.
Even with those practices, however, heavy rains and wind can be detrimental when row crops such as corn and soybeans are in the early growth stages.
Now, as farmers return to the fields to replant in areas or do crop spraying, the SWCD and NRCS staffs encourage them to seek free estimates on conservation practices geared to reduce trouble spots in the future.
"Right now, guys ... can identify these areas that are gullied and have us come out and do estimates on the practices -- the sooner the better," SWCD Manager Ed Lenz said. "When the crop gets taller, we're no longer able to do estimates."
Lenz said by having estimates done now, SWCD staff has time to seek cost-share dollars and complete the project within a year or two. The estimates are free, and do not require the landowner to do the practice.
"It just gives them an idea of what they can do," Lenz said. "It's more difficult to get cost-share now with the state and federal budgets."
"Gone are the days when someone can walk in and we have money sitting around waiting and we can do a practice tomorrow -- it just doesn't happen anymore," McLain added.
Producers can work with the SWCD at any time if they aren't seeking cost-share funds for a particular project.
"We're here to work with them, to help them make their farm even better. When big rain events happen, think of Nobles SWCD and NRCS and stop in," said Dawn Madison, soil conservation technician.
Photos Madison took of tile intakes surrounded by residue show that some farmers are trying to do what they can to keep topsoil in place, but even the best intentions can be foiled by Mother Nature. She encourages producers to watch their intakes and keep them clear of debris so the systems can work properly to handle runoff.
"Nothing is maintenance free," McLain said. "Our vehicles aren't maintenance-free, our tractors aren't maintenance-free and the conservation practices we install aren't maintenance- free."
In one pair of photos, Madison pointed out a grassed waterway along a field, one portion of which was ridge-tilled and the other portion tilled with a moldboard plow. The waterway along the plowed field was completely filled in with sediment, and the waterway adjacent to the reduced tillage area was still fairly clean.
"Maintenance in a grassed waterway is, to be honest, a pain in the butt," McLain said. "You're destroying the grass to scrape the dirt out, but if you don't scrape the dirt out, you're just creating the next place where the sediment is going to drop the next time."
In recent years, many producers in the region have begun using rollers after soybean planting to create a better seedbed for emerging plants. With the heavy rains and high wind, though, the rolled fields are more susceptible to erosion.
"Any little ridge that was in that soil before, to slow that wind down, is now perfectly flat," McLain said. "The velocity of the wind can be extremely fast, and those soil particles can be picked up and rolled across the field."
"The producers have to weigh the consequences of having a nice flat field that they can combine without destroying their very expensive equipment and having that flat surface that may erode a little bit more," Madison added.
and cover crops
McLain said even in years when crop prices are good, conservation practices remain vitally important. Projects such as establishment of a windbreak can help keep topsoil in its place and have an impact for years to come.
"I've seen trees leaving the ground faster than we're replacing them," Madison said.
"Field windbreaks ... will protect up to 10 times the height of the tree that you're planting," added Lenz.
Cover crops are also an option producers can use to keep soil in its place.
"Wind erosion causes people to talk -- it reminds older people of the Dust Bowl days," Madison said. "We have some excellent stewards in Nobles County. We have people who are doing these (conservation) practices and are very concerned."
Lenz said the SWCD office will work with landowners to ensure conservation efforts they implement will work on their lands.
"We want these systems to work with the producers because we want them to continue to do the systems," Madison added. "We can't make anybody do a practice, but we will certainly work with them to try to improve what they have."
All projects completed by the SWCD and NRCS must be in compliance with the Highly Erodible Lands and Wetland Compliance provisions of the Farm Bill and state regulations.
The SWCD has an application deadline of Friday for EQIP (Environmental Quality Incentive Program). Interested producers are encouraged to call the office at 376-9150, Ext. 3 for details.