Get the Dirt on Soil Conservation
One of Earth’s most important natural resources is soil. The soil beneath your feet can differ drastically from place to place. Soils are identified based on properties like soil texture (the proportions of sand, silt, and clay the soil contains), which can influence the soil’s color, organic matter content, mineral content, drainage abilities, and other properties important to plant growth. With more than 600 kinds of soils identified in Illinois alone, it is no surprise that management practices that work on one farm in northern Illinois probably do not work on a farm in southern Illinois.
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Farmers depend upon the soil in their fields to support and nourish crops and pastures. In order to realize its full potential, farmers are knowledgeable about the types of soils in their fields and their characteristics. On average, it takes 500 years to form one inch of topsoil. Because of this slow regeneration, farmers are careful to implement soil conservation measures to reduce the risk of soil moving out of their fields. Soil erosion can occur by wind carrying away loose particles from the soil surface or by water moving along the soil surface, carrying loose soil particles along with it.
One of the most common ways for a farmer to implement soil conservation practices is through tillage – or lack thereof. Tillage is the preparation of land for growing crops. It’s a mechanical process that stirs, overturns, or otherwise agitates the soil to prepare it for planting or to disrupt the growth of weeds.
There are three main categories of tillage: minimum-till, reduced tillage, and conventional tillage.
- Minimum-till includes practices like no-till and strip-till, which result in little to no soil disturbance outside of what is required to plant the crop. At least 50 percent of the soil surface remains covered by crop residue.
- Reduced tillage (or conservation tillage) includes practices that leave 30 percent or more of the soil surface covered by crop residue.
- Conventional tillage includes practices that tend to work soil more deeply than reduced tillage practices, leaving less than 15 percent of crop residue remaining on the soil surface.
Beyond tillage, there are many ways farmers are working to enhance their soils. This includes planting cover crops, maintaining grass waterways and buffer strips, utilizing terraces within the field to reduce slopes, and practicing proper nutrient management.
Soil management is not a one-size-fits-all strategy. Even though fields might be in the same area, key differences between soil types and qualities result in farmers using different management practices on different fields or even within the same field!
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Farmers also consider the types of equipment available to them and the costs associated with adopting different practices. It could require a buying new piece of tillage equipment or spending time re-fitting existing equipment to make a new practice possible. Farmers frequently experiment with new practices on a small scale to understand how it fits into the other operations of their farm.
Ultimately, farmers are all working towards the same goal: to leave their land better than they found it, providing an opportunity for the next generation to step up and take over the family farm.