The Woodward News

May 1, 2014

Soil erosion major concern during drought

Rachael Van Horn
Woodward News

— No one here needs an official drought monitor to know it is dry.

If you were anywhere near the Panhandle and Western Oklahoma Sunday and witnessed how the dust blocked out the sun, you know it’s time to get serious about water and soil conservation, said Clay Pope, executive director for the Oklahoma Association of Conservations Districts.

And with predictions that the drought could drag on for an extended amount of time, deep concerns about soil erosion are rising to the top of many conservation organizations.

At a time when some farmers are working their ground to plant dry land cotton or replacing failed wheat crops with milo, now is the time to alter plans and conserve soil coverage, said Kim Farber, president of the Oklahoma Association of Conservation Districts (OACD). 

“We have to be mindful of both the current weather conditions and the long range weather outlook,” Farber said.  “With the possibility of below normal rainfall and above normal temperatures for the next few months, we need to make sure we use every tool at our disposal to minimize subsoil moisture loss and exposure to wind erosion.  If we can do this in a way that saves us money on diesel costs too, that seems like a good deal to me.  The bottom line is that we all need to think before we plow this year and make sure we aren’t opening ourselves up to major soil erosion problems.  We don’t need to re-learn the lessons of the 1930’s.”

But tilling the soil is a long proven method and how most farmers prepare their ground here, so change is often avoided just because it is different and farmers may be unsure of methods they have never used.

“There is already a lot of ground being worked up in anticipation of planting dry land cotton all in southwest Oklahoma and in Texas going towards Lubbock,” Pope said. “And you know how things look with the wheat this year. There are going to be acres zeroed out with crop insurance this year and guys will be going back with a summer crop and I myself am going back with milo.”

So Pope understands the need for producers to plant a crop, it’s just that in concert with other conservationists, he asks that producers employ no-till or minimal tilling techniques to keep as much “residue” on the ground, protecting it from wind erosion, he said.

“Every time you work that ground up you lose substantial subsoil moisture,” Pope said. “You know how summers are here, they are always hot and dry and windy and we want to keep that ground covered at much as possible.”

According to Pope, studies have shown that no-till crop production requires three to four gallons of diesel less per acre to produce a crop, Pope said.

 In addition, studies by Oklahoma State have shown that more than one inch of water is lost from the top 15 inches of cultivated soil after the first pass with tillage equipment.  These studies also have shown that ground farmed with no-till methods holds more water after each rain event than conventional tilled ground, increasing the amount of sub-soil moisture available for crop production, he said.  

Additional research has shown that by reducing tillage a producer can also help increase organic matter in their soil and for every one percent increase in organic matter, the moisture holding capacity of that soil triples.  That equates to additional water for growing crops that OACD’s Farber said will be critical if the long range drought forecasts are correct, Pope said.

“We just want them to look at what their options are,” Pope said. “Check your reality and base it on that. But the bottom line is, soil is an ag producers basis of wealth and we need to make sure we are protecting that basis of wealth.”