This year’s devastating drought not only robbed crops of valuable moisture, it reduced plant growth and protective cover for the soil. Conservation officials warn that the drought made the soil resource vulnerable to erosion and any tillage will only make conditions worse.
Soil quality specialist Barry Fisher with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in Indiana says if a farmer reduces tillage or increases surface residue, they can increase infiltration rates.
“When we do get fall rains, there will be more water going into that soil profile,” Fisher says. “Surface residue will reduce erosion. And by using residue to keep water in the soil, there will be more organic matter in the soil development, as well as macropore development.”
Fisher says even conservation tillage this year can be more damaging than usual because the crop residue is very fragile.
“If farmers do tillage out there this fall, a greater portion of that residue will get buried,” he says. “When residue is buried, rather than left on the soil surface, farmers open themselves up for wind and water erosion.”
By eliminating soil disturbance from tillage, Fisher explains that the soil will be better able to absorb any moisture when it returns.
“Raindrops falling on bare soil dislodge soil particles, resulting in water erosion,” he says. “Residue from decomposing plants catches the force of the raindrops letting more water infiltrate the soil profile instead of becoming runoff.”
Standing residue is also important for anchoring the soil. Fisher advises farmers to be thinking into the future on how to keep residue cover on their fields.
Some of the worst wind erosion occurs in March and April. Standing crop residue slashes the force of strong winds during these months. Farmers can protect their fields by eliminating fall tillage.
“Soil is the foundation for next year’s crops and keeping soil healthy is the first line of defense in battling damage from wind and rain,” he says.