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Going backward

Agriculture.com Staff 02/13/2009 @ 6:53am

The winter started out with some very disagreeable weather in eastern Nebraska. Small snow storms two or three times a week started before Thanksgiving and continued until nearly Christmas. Interspersed were two ice storms that made the snow difficult to deal with. Then on December 26, we had a day of temperatures in the 60's which melted it all. There have been a few cold days since then and just enough snow to keep things white until about a week ago.

In the past week, we have had several warm days that melted the snow cover. The resulting runoff was easy to spot because of the lack of cover and wet soil below. I drove over 500 miles this week speaking at marketing meetings in central and northeast Nebraska. The week marked the halfway point in the 2009 workshop schedule.

Because of the way the winter moisture came and went, it was easy to spot erosion problems caused by heavy spring and summer rains and less than ideal farming practices. I farm in an area where most of the land is classified as highly erodible. Farmers in my county have been implementing conservation practices since the 1950's. My dad built the first terraces on my farm with a 1948 Oliver "70" and a four bottom disc plow.

Prior to that time it was common to have ditches from the top of the hill to the bottom and every 50 to 100 feet across the field. I clearly remember ditches at the bottoms of the hills deep enough that I could stand in them and not see over the bank. Terraces and water ways solved the washing problem and left the soil in its original location. Those terraces are still in place and for the most part continue to control erosion. Since the advent of no-till, there is little need for doing any maintenance on the conservation structures.

What I saw as I drove around the past week causes me to fear that we are going backwards with our soil management. It is obvious from the appearance of numerous ditches, almost everywhere I looked, that soil conservation is taking a back seat to speed in getting fieldwork done. Driving from Grand Island north and east to Norfolk, I did not see a single grassed waterway and only a very few grassed backslope terraces. I saw a lot of fields with severe erosion problems.

No-till is practiced in this area but it is far from universal. From the appearance of the road ditches, it seems that both no-till and conservation structures are necessary to eliminate the movement of significant amounts of soil.

In my area, most of the terraces are still in place. However, tilling the end rows and planting over the tops of terraces has resulted in unsightly rills where the water runs. Planting with 16 row planters and spraying at high speeds with 100 foot booms are quickly destroying 50-60 years of soil conservation efforts. I suppose that most farmers are not old enough to remember what it was like to drive around eroded spots that are too deep to cross even with big machinery.

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