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SWCD commentary: Matching machinery size to the landscape

Fri, May 9th, 2014
Posted in All Commentary

By Brian Hazel, Lanesboro

Tim Gossman, Chatfield

Leonard Leutink Jr., Spring Valley

Pamela Mensink, Preston

Travis Willford, Harmony

An article recently published by the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) in Iowa speaks to problems seen in Fillmore County where large equipment is being used to farm steep slopes. On these steeper slopes, it is necessary to match machinery size to the landscape in order to maintain traditional conservation practices. Large, wide equipment is difficult to maneuver around grassed waterways and terraces, so oftentimes these conservation practices are reduced or eliminated in places where they are most needed.

Dr. Mark Hanna, Extension Agricultural Engineer at Iowa State University, says farmers need to consider what is best long-term for the land they farm. “In sloping areas that benefit from contouring, it is often not practical to use wide equipment used in flatter areas,” he said. “Tighter turns nearer the top of slopes can minimize the capacity effects of equipment that is too wide.” Although 24- or 48-row planters may be useful in the flatlands of south central and southwestern Minnesota, they aren’t a good choice for southeastern Minnesota. The maximum width that can be used on most steep slopes is 12- or 16-row planters in order to maintain conservation practices. Older terraces only have about 90 feet of farmable space between them making them difficult to maintain using larger equipment.

Since the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, farmers have been planting crops along the contour instead of up and down slopes and implementing other conservation measures on their farms to help reduce the risk of soil erosion and prevent crops from washing away. However, as farmers work more acres and change to larger equipment to improve efficiencies, conservation practices, such as grassed waterways and terraces, are perceived as production obstacles rather than necessary tools to protect their soil’s long-term productivity and sustainability. Attempts to compensate for this by running up and down along the waterways to avoid spraying them with herbicides can cause tire tracks that will wash any time it rains. Lack of adequate headlands (60 feet or more) needed for turning around larger equipment to stay on the contour leads to 24 or 48 rows being planted up and down the slopes at the field edges.

Erosion causes soil to degrade over time reducing its productivity. Top soil depth is reduced along with organic matter and nutrient availability. Unproductive soil leads to an increased need for inputs, which costs the farmer money in the long-term and increases the risk of nutrients running off or leaching which causes water quality problems. Most soils in Fillmore County can tolerate erosion of up to 5 tons per acre and still maintain productivity. That’s less than the thickness of a dime over an acre. If erosion rills or gullies are visible, the erosion rate far exceeds this tolerable rate of 5 tons per acre. That means lost productivity on those acres that has to be made up somehow with costly external inputs.

Keeping smaller equipment around to use on the steeper slopes is one smart management choice that can be made. Some farmers keep 6- or 8-row planters to fill in the ends and corners left by bigger equipment. Utilizing GPS and variable rate technology can also reduce the risk of waterways getting sprayed with herbicide and can fine tune nutrient applications to reduce runoff and leaching. Auto-section control on planters can be used to work around conservation practices. These and other management alternatives can be used to maximize the efficiency of larger equipment while maintaining needed conservation practices.


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8:36:27, Jun 27th 2014

morris17 says:
A big THANK YOU to the members of the board. After recent destructive rain events, anyone who does not see the absolute need for the advice of the board to be implemented should take a drive around Fillmore County and see the erosion damage. Once the soil is washed away you never get it back.
Board members, keep up the fight and thank you for being advocates for good stewardship!

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