Extreme weather finds even longtime no-tillers fighting washouts and erosion. Bill and Babetta Lucke of Persia, Iowa, 12-year no-till veterans, have a stellar soil-saving system, including terraced slopes and miles of grass waterways. “These things help a lot,” Bill says, but with torrential rains and the 2012 drought, “we still lose some soil.” Buffeted by weather extremes like so many Corn Belt farms, their 1,000 acres lie in the fertile loess hills of southwest Iowa.
The most effective way to slow your topsoil and keep it in place is less tillage, says Iowa State University (ISU) Extension Field Agronomist Clarke McGrath, in southwest Iowa. “Nothing can prevent all soil erosion, but established no-till fields will have better erosion resistance and water infiltration than minimum-till fields, and minimum-till fields will be better than conventional till.”
Worst erosion in 25 years
In 2012, several factors combined to cause “the worst erosion I’ve seen in 25 years, especially in southwest Iowa,” McGrath says. There was more tillage than normal due to compaction problems, glyphosate-resistant weeds and more continuous corn. Even shallow tillage loosens soil and residue, he says. “In southwest Iowa, that’s not working as well as no-till to reduce soil erosion.”
The 2012 drought raised erosion risk in many places. Drought-stricken crops produced less and more fragile residue, exposing more soil surface to the elements in this recent more variable and extreme weather.
Persistent drought also weakens soil structure, says Mahdi Al-Kaisi, ISU agronomist. That’s because microbial activity, which builds soil aggregates, slows down when it’s dry.
Meanwhile, intense rains have become more common – summer of 2012 aside, McGrath says. “Our rainstorms the last five years have gotten increasingly severe.” In a pounding storm, raindrops can hit the ground at 20 mph, splashing as high as 4-5 ft., Al-Kaisi says. Splashed soil particles “clog surface pores, which in turn reduce water infiltration, increase water runoff and increase erosion.”
The problem is worst in fields with poor residue cover. Soils with little residue are also prone to crusting after hard rains, he adds. In addition, these crusts “create conditions extremely conducive to soil erosion following rainfall events.”
In the Corn Belt, 70% of highly erodible cropland – more than 14 million acres – is losing soil faster than the NRCS’s “tolerable” rate of 5 tons/acre/year, according to the 2007 NRCS National Resources Inventory, its most recent. And that percentage has barely budged since 1992. NRCS considers about a quarter of the Corn Belt’s cropland to be highly erodible.
The Luckes shifted from a conventional two-pass tillage system to no-till in the mid-1990s after Babetta joined the Harrison County Soil and Water Conservation District board of commissioners.
Bill experimented for three years before he switched over to no-till for both soybeans and corn, comparing yields in side-by-side trials. “I couldn’t see any yield differences at all,” he says. In a good year, his soils are capable of producing 190-210-bu. corn and 50-60-bu. soybeans.
Bill broadcasts P and K in the fall and injects anhydrous ammonia in the spring. Front coulters and trash whippers on his Kinze planter provide adequate residue management for corn, he says. He removes the trash whippers for soybean planting. His no-till weed management system includes pre-emergence soil-applied herbicides for both corn and beans followed by a post-emergence glyphosate application. “We’ve had good luck with this system.”
In the decade since they quit tilling, the Luckes have watched their soil organic matter climb, and the soil seems softer, Bill says. Water cuts fewer field gullies, and “our terraces last probably twice as long because they’re not filling in with silt and sediment.”
The Luckes have also invested in some grass buffers along creeks, two water-storage ponds that collect runoff, and spillways on two ditch outlets to trap sediment. Bill also spends a lot of time maintaining his grass waterways and terraces.
Of all these conservation practices, no-till and terraces are the most effective for holding on to the topsoil, they say. “The water quality is better with the terraces, too,” Bill says, “and residue from the no-till holds the soil and chemicals from going into the streams.” But, “the terraces need to be maintained to be effective.” At harvest, he maps spots in need of repairs. “We see a lot of terraces full of sediment, so they will not hold water after heavy rains.”
Despite these efforts, it’s still “a constant fight to hang on to our soil,” Bill says. Intense rainstorms continue to carve out field gullies, which transport sediment. Farmers often disk these small ditches closed, but Bill takes a different tactic.
A few years ago, he bought an 8-yard Big Dog Scraper. Every fall, he pushes soil back up the hills to fill the field gullies. “We round them up a bit and pack it really good so it doesn’t move. It takes some time, but it’s well worth it.” Filled with fertile topsoil that has washed downhill over the decades, the repaired gullies sometimes “yield better than the rest of the field.”
A lot of growers in the region are now doing the same thing, McGrath adds.
For the Luckes, soil stewardship is all about preserving future productivity, Babetta says.
Beyond that, Bill adds, “It’s the right thing to do. I have a responsibility to do the best job possible to take care of and improve it and make it better than when I started farming.”