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Mark Riechers and his son Joe raise corn, soybeans and cattle on rolling slopes near Darlington in southwestern Wisconsin’s Driftless Area. Their erodible loess soils have been in continuous no-till for more than 20 years. After two decades without being disturbed, the soil is rich with what Mark calls “dirt critters,” the beneficial organisms that build soil structure and tilth. “Because we don’t disrupt the soil structure with tillage, it can take a lot of water,” he says.
As a result of their farming practices, which also include grass waterways and multiple thin applications of solid manure, just 2% of annual rainfall ran off the Riechers’ farm, according to 7 years of monitoring by the University of Wisconsin Discovery Farms. Sediment losses averaged about 300 pounds per year, or 3% of NRCA “tolerable” loss. “It’s not just no-till,” Mark says, “it’s a combination of things.”
1. Late winter and spring
Risk - Up
Late winter and spring are the most dangerous seasons for runoff and soil erosion. Rapid snowmelt, rain on frozen ground, rain on soils already saturated from melting snow, lack of a crop canopy — all these factors make the soil more susceptible to damage than at any other time of year, Frame says.
Late winter and spring accounted for about 80% of annual runoff, according to 100 site-years of Wisconsin farms’ water, nutrient and soil loss monitoring by the University of Wisconsin. Half of annual runoff occurred in February and March, and an additional one-third in May and June.