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Stand (for) our ground

Thu, Jun 27th, 2013
Posted in All The Great Outdoors

If there was ever a year to be a worst case scenario for soil erosion, 2013 could be it. The last two years of timely rains and almost ideal conditions for harvest have erased the memories of the rains of 2007 and 2008 which devastated parts of southeast Minnesota. Last year’s dry fall and early harvest left ample time for fall tillage. Then came this year’s wet spring during spring planting and before crop canopy. This is the crop year’s most vulnerable time. Soil erosion has been extreme even in areas where heavy rains have been absent. Scenes like those in the pictures are all too common.

Brian Hazel, Lanesboro farmer and Fillmore Soil and Water Conservation Board Supervisor for over 20 years, says, “This year’s erosion is some of the worst I have ever seen, and the lack of conservation practices has made it worse. Landowners need to drive around the area and observe what’s going on. There are operators that have significantly less erosion than others. Stop and ask what they do to limit erosion.”

Numerous experts everywhere from the University of Minnesota to those worldwide are saying that current farming practices are unsustainable. Different soil types have different rates of tolerable soil loss (T), the rate at which the soil can be lost and still rebuild and maintain productivity. “T” for the most common soils in Fillmore County is five tons/acre/year. This is a barely perceptible amount. The loss of soil the thickness of a dime over an acre is 10 tons, so the average tolerable soil loss is half of that. If gullies and rills are visible, then the soil loss is more than the soil can tolerate to maintain productivity.

Loss of soil productivity is expensive, and in the long term, devastating. The declines of the great civilizations in the world were the result of the soils being depleted so the people could no longer be fed. Loss of soil productivity means that more external inputs are needed to maintain yields. Some of that loss is remedied by seed genetics that result in higher yields. The rest is made up for by increasing fertilizer inputs, which are becoming more and more expensive.

Maintaining eligibility for federal farm programs includes requirements for controlling soil erosion. Tammy Martin, CED for the Fillmore County Farm Service Agency (FSA), reminds producers that to maintain compliance, their farming practices should match what is in their conservation plans on file in the USDA office. If the conservation plan is outdated, soil loss may be more than is allowed putting their federal farm payments at risk. There is no charge for updating conservation plans.

For the past five years, water quality monitoring has been occurring in the Root River watershed at the field-, small watershed-, and large watershed-scale. The data tell the story of a variety of rainfall patterns and land use practices over those years. Where soil and water conservation practices are in place and well-maintained, there is consistently less runoff and loss of soil and nutrients. Just a few basic practices, such as grassed waterways, buffers, cover crops, and leaving crop residue, make the difference between losing pounds of soil versus tons where these practices are lacking.

The trends seen now are not inevitable and can be turned around without creating hardship for farmers or society as a whole. Plus, the long term benefits are immeasurable—the ability to continue to produce food and fiber on what has been some of the most the productive land in the world while keeping the soil and nutrients on the land where they belong and out of our water where they don’t belong.

A properly designed and maintained waterway can reduce erosion significantly.

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