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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.”
5. Surface cover
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You can’t control your farm’s soil type, slope, or rainfall timing and intensity — all factors that affect erosion rates. “But you can control how you protect the soil surface,” Helmers says. Reducing or eliminating tillage is the best way to keep your soil in place, he says. On erodible fields, no-till can cut soil loss by up to 90%, according to Iowa Learning Farms Project models.
Illinois farmers are embracing reduced tillage and cover crops to prevent erosion and improve soil quality and infiltration, Plumer says. More than 80% of the state’s soybeans are no-till; fall chisel plowing has decreased, and many Illinois growers have shifted to shallow vertical tillage, which minimizes soil disturbance and leaves a protective residue cover on the soil, Plumer says.
He also sees more cover crop adoption, including cereal rye, ryegrass, oats, oilseed radish and mixtures. Despite the agronomic and management challenges, some 200,000 acres of Illinois cropland were planted with cover crops last fall, Plumer estimates. “Cover crops pretty well eliminated erosion in March and April.”