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LETTER Soil erosion rates and the cover crop option

By Matt Burkholder
The Nature Conservancy 
Farmer Advocate for Conservation Coordinator 
[email protected]

Does Riley creek have to turn brown after a rainfall event?

The short answer is no. But why does it turn brown? Most farm field’s drain into lakes and streams in our community. Unfortunately last fall many farm fields were tilled bare, exposing soil to erosion. Often a fall tillage pass is done to break up the soil and reduce compaction caused by heavy machinery.  Heavy machinery will always make some compaction. The last two fall seasons were very dry; as a result I would argue there wasn’t as much compaction made as farmers think. After a tillage pass is made rain water does infiltrate into the soil quickly. Soon after that the topsoil crusts over and water infiltration begins to decline, resulting in the need for another tillage pass. As farmers and landowners it is our responsibility to reduce erosion. The annual rate of soil erosion in Ohio is approximately 2.7 tons. That is not acceptable and it doesn’t have to be this way. 

One way to significantly reduce soil erosion and nutrient runoff is to utilize no-till and plant cover crops. Many farmers across the country plant cover crops after the cash crop is finished growing. Cover crops naturally cover and loosen the soil to help break up compaction and increase water infiltration. Do cover crops have a cost to plant? Of course they do, but oftentimes implementing the cost of cover crops are no more costly than a tillage pass. So I like to say it’s a wash.