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Fall harvest a good time to plan conservation measures

Agriculture.com Staff 09/25/2006 @ 3:56pm

Fall harvest is an excellent time to scout and plan for conservation practices that can be installed or implemented to help reduce soil erosion and improve water quality.

These practices include grassed waterways, filter strips, field borders, windbreaks, no-till planting and/or decommissioning out-of-service wells.

The combine cab offers an excellent vantage point to note where channels have developed in the field from the concentration of runoff water. These rills generally develop in the same places each year -- they get filled in by spring tillage, re-develop during the growing season and get bounced over by the combine during harvest. Year after year the erosive cycle is repeated unless corrective measures are taken.

Consider installing grassed waterways in these areas. As the name indicates, a grassed waterway is a shaped or graded channel that is seeded to grass. This channel forms an area where water can flow down the slope in a controlled manner. Erosion is reduced because the velocity and energy of the flowing water is reduced by the grass stems, and the roots help hold the soil in place. Grassed waterways in a field can substantially lessen the possibility of equipment damage by eliminating gullies caused by runoff.

Conservation buffers, such as filter strips and riparian forest buffers, placed along the edges of streams or other water bodies serve as a last line of defense for sediment and other pollutants that might enter the water. They are effective at trapping sediment and enhance the infiltration of runoff water. Buffers improve safety by keeping equipment away from the edge of the stream. Buffers also provide excellent habitat for pheasants, songbirds and other wildlife. When planted to trees, a buffer may provide income for future generations.

Grassed field borders can provide a convenient location for unloading combines into trucks or grain carts, loading planters or for turning around combines, planters and other equipment. Controlling field traffic in this manner can greatly reduce the likelihood of developing a compaction problem within the field. Field borders often can be used to eliminate crop rows that would otherwise be planted up-and-down hill, further reducing soil erosion. They also can provide wildlife habitat.

Windbreaks, shelterbelts and living snowfences are similar practices, where rows of trees and shrubs are planted to protect an area from wind and/or blowing snow. Living snowfences often are established along roads or lanes to control drifting snow; windbreaks/shelterbelts are usually planted to protect farmsteads, feedlots and other structures. Windbreaks can be effective in reducing heating costs and improving livestock performance in the winter and they provide excellent wildlife habitat.

All of the practices mentioned here require a commitment of land and the planting of permanent vegetation (grasses, shrubs, trees).

No-till planting is a proven conservation practice that often just requires a change in management and some equipment adjustments. The first step in implementing a no-till system is to make sure that the residue from the harvested crop is uniformly distributed behind the combine by using a straw spreader or chopper to avoid leaving windrows or piles of residue that can interfere with the planting operation the next spring. A chaff spreader also may be needed for more uniform residue distribution, particularly when harvesting soybeans or small grains with a header greater than 20 feet wide. In the spring, planter adjustments may include tightening the down-pressure springs, adding extra weight and making sure that the furrow openers are sharp.

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