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Soil Conservation Pays OffSoil Conservation Pays Off

Good conservation practices can prevent flood damage, speed harvests.

September 1, 2008

4 Min Read

By Kevin Erb

Randy and Diane Puttkamer suffered through 23 inches of rain in just one week in early June at their farm just south of Baraboo in Sauk County. But it was not nearly as bad as it could have been had Randy, a long-time no-till corn and soybean grower, not been farming with a sound conservation system in place.

"During the flooding rains in June, so much water ran across the fields that I have no doubt that if I had chisel plowed those fields, it would have eroded completely down to the chisel marks," says Randy. "My grassed waterways have filled up, but they are stabilized. Corn stalks built up into piles in the fields over 100 feet to the side of the waterways."

Waterways mean faster harvest

While many neighbors have large gullies in their fields, Randy and Diane's waterways prevented them from forming. Randy is looking forward to a much faster harvest than some neighbors.

"Many of these gullies you can't take a combine through. If we had a well designed and maintained waterway in permanent vegetation, the combine might not even need to slow down," notes Sauk County Resource Conservationist Mike Stanek.

"When farmers plant and spray though concentrated flow channels, gullies will form in wet years. You may be able do it without problems in a dry year, but in that wet year, harvest may be stop and start as you try not to drop a tire into the gully."

A small investment in shaping and maintaining a waterway is a lot cheaper than downtime and a tire repair bill.

"We need to put in some small acreage practices that make a big difference—such as waterways and buffers," Stanek adds.

"I don't want to pay taxes on the dirt I'm giving to the neighbors," Puttkamer laughs, referring to his reliance on no-till for soil savings. "I can harvest through these corn stalks a lot better than harvesting through a gully or ravine."

Residue provides multiple benefits

The benefits of his conservation system don't stop with combine-swallowing gullies in his fields. Both his corn and soybeans survived the beating rains and recovered quicker than nearby conventionally-tilled fields. The crop residue provided at least some soil cover and seedling protection during the downpours and helped stabilize the soil during flooding.

Randy sees the benefits as a taxpayer as well. As the town board member, he is dealing with sites where there was so much erosion they had to use snow plows and graders to scrape dirt off the road after the water receded.

"I also enjoy the fuel savings with no-till," he adds. Every trip saved means less fuel used.

Randy is convinced that an integrated conservation system is the key to profitability. Using 100% no-till since 2002, he has documented 290 bushel corn and 70-plus bushel soybean yields, and is on track with an to produce 300 bushel corn using no-till.

"It's not that I'm buying less fertilizer, but rather no-till is a more efficient and effective way to treat the whole farm the same," he says.

Erb is a University of Wisconsin Extension conservation development and training coordinator.

What is crop residue management?

Any tillage method that leaves crop residue on the surface to reduce erosion.

How does it work?

Crop residue left on the surface shields the soil from rain and wind until emerging plants provide a protective canopy. Crop residue also improves soil tilth, adds organic matter to the soil, and may even result in a little grain being left for wildlife. Less tillage reduces soil compaction and saves time and fuel.

Three basic crop residue management systems are common in Wisconsin:

  • Mulch-till uses such implements as a chisel plow or disk to till the entire field.

  • No-till leaves the soil and crop residue undisturbed except for the crop row where the seed is placed in the ground.

  • Zone or strip-till uses coulters to till a 5"-7" strip for injecting starter fertilizer and planting in one operation.


Plan to leave as much residue as needed to reduce erosion. Planning begins at harvest. Reduce the number of tillage passes and set tillage tools to shallower levels to leave more residue on the surface.

Straight points and sweeps on chisel plows leave more residue than twisted points.

Consider your soils and crop rotation. Heavy residue (corn, for example) on droughty soils can help conserve soil moisture; however, heavy residue on poorly drained soils can delay spring warming and drying.

Nutrient and pest management practices might need to change as you farm with higher levels of residue.

You may need different equipment suited to the type of crop residue management you plan to use.

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