March 03, 2024

Kleinschmidt: The dirty truth about erosion

The recent tragic events on I-55 south of Springfield, Illinois, on May 1 had many people discussing what could have or should have been done.

Many of the non-farming communities urge the planting of shelter belts. While this is a novel idea, the shelter belts take many years to grow big enough to be effective, and they do not solve the root cause of the problem.

Illinois loses nearly 5 tons of topsoil per acre per year from conventional tillage. Much of the soil erosion in Illinois is from rain erosion, not wind.

People don’t commonly think about the effects of rain erosion because it is not in the sky and is easily seen.

But nearly every lake and reservoir in Illinois deal with sedimentation from agricultural land that carries soil nutrients like phosphorus that cause algal blooms in the middle of the summer or high nitrate loads.

This sedimentation results in municipalities using more chemicals to treat the drinking water or spending millions of dollars on reverse osmosis systems. All this cost gets passed down to those drinking the water.

The truth about erosion is that it is a biological process in the soil, specifically a lack of biological processes.

The biological process I am referring to is the formation of stable aggregates. Stable soil aggregates are formed by biotic glues released by beneficial fungi and bacteria in the soil.

The aggregates provide soil stability to resist wind and water erosion. They are responsible for the water cycle and the nutrient cycle to occur in the soil.

But here’s the catch — soil aggregates only last about 28 days before they are consumed and reconstructed. They require a living root in the soil to feed the microorganisms, a byproduct of photosynthesis.

In exchange, the organisms create enzymes to provide the plant with nutrients. Corn plants begin releasing exudates at germination and continue until a few weeks after tassel in mid-summer.

To think about it, the microbes on nearly 98% of the acres of corn and soybeans in Illinois are not being fed anything from August through mid to late April. That’s a long time for anything to go without food.

The Natural Resources Conservation Service promotes four soil health principles to help build and maintain soil aggregates. They are:

1. Keep the soil covered as much as possible with residues.

2. Minimize physical, chemical and biological disturbances.

3. Keep a living root in the soil as much as possible.

4. Add diversity of more plant species.

These soil health tenants help solve all problems with erosion, nutrient cycling, water cycling activity, biological activities and many other positive effects.

One thing that farmers and ag retailers should consider is strip-till. This practice allows strips to be made with a small amount of tillage, where planting will occur instead of full-width tillage across an acre.

Strip-till also allows farmers to band nutrients in the row where the plant will need them instead of across the entire acre. Strip-tilling could reduce fertilizer usage by as much as 30% without sacrificing yield.

Farmers could also implement cover cropping with strip-till to get the best of both worlds.

No-till is the premier method for keeping soil in place. The average soil loss for no-till in Illinois is about 1.46 tons per acre, according to the 2018 Corn Transect survey results from the Illinois Department of Agriculture’s website, compared to nearly 5 tons of erosion with conventional tillage practices.

This practice of no-till plus cover crops has all the same benefits as strip-till, plus it saves a lot of fuel usage by not needing to do a tillage pass. However, no-till may not be an option for everyone.

I also understand that some say they must do tillage to get residues to break down. I argue that the residues are not breaking down because of the lack of biological activity, and I have data to prove it.

I am not saying that there should never be any tillage, as sometimes tillage is needed to fix problems in fields, such as ruts or compaction from driving in the same spot with heavy equipment.

However, using cover crops requires a steep learning curve in managing them and educating farmers about their benefits. It is a systems approach to farming.

There is a desired need for more outreach programs, peer-to-peer mentor groups and education on managing the cover crop as another tool in the toolbox. Unfortunately, the cover crops’ costs and unknown risks sometimes keep farmers from trying them.

There is a bill in the Illinois Senate, SB1701, focusing on soil health and providing funds for conservation farming practices and education —

This bill could support farmers to ensure that we keep our most valuable resource — the soil — in place and help prevent more tragic accidents.

I support this bill as it provides resources for peer-to-peer education and for farmers considering adopting a soil health system for their farming operations.

Farmers can be their most significant support group when adopting a new farming practice. So often, farmers feel like they are on an island if they are doing something different than their neighboring farmers and feel like they can’t talk about what they are doing with them even though the neighbor may be curious about the practice.

Peer groups have worked incredibly well for some projects I have been a part of in Kansas to get a greater adoption rate with a greater degree of success.

I urge you to write to your legislators, encouraging them to pass this bipartisan bill.

David Kleinschmidt is the owner of Progressive Agronomy Consulting.