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Corn+Soybean Digest

Conservation Tillage Brings Fish Back

Conservation tillage can do more than save soil - it can also put desirable fish back into rivers and creeks.

Fish life in Indiana's Big Raccoon Creek, for example, is on the upswing thanks largely to a significant shift to no-till farming.

That's according to Jim Gammon, aquatic ecologist emeritus at DePauw University, Greencastle, IN. Gammon has been studying a 10-mile stretch of Big Coon, located in Putnam County, since 1981.

Big Coon, which varies from 25' to 40' wide, meanders for nearly 100 miles through farmland and small towns in west-central Indiana. It empties into the Wabash River near Montezuma.

"Back in the 1960s and earlier, many of our rural creeks had abundant fish communities," recalls Gammon.

"Then in the 1970s, when fields were enlarged and many pastures were plowed up and put into row crops, we started seeing a huge change. Permanent vegetation along the stream banks was destroyed. More silt was eroding into the streams."

Gammon explains that the major fish species in rural streams, such as smallmouth bass, sunfish and darters, must spawn on gravel. Silty conditions discourage spawning.

"When we started monitoring Big Raccoon Creek in 1981, I was struck by the absence of the types of fish that should have been there," says Gammon.

The situation started to improve in the 1980s.

"We had a number of dry years in the '80s," Gammon points out. "When rainfall is low, there is less soil erosion and therefore less sediment in the streams. That aids both spawning and the survival of newly hatched fish. Fish numbers and diversity started building back."

Rainfall has been much heavier in the 1990s. But there also has been a considerable increase in conservation tillage, particularly in the area of Big Raccoon Creek.

"In 1989, about 10% of our corn and soybeans were no-tilled," reports Barry Fisher, district conservationist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in Putnam County. "By 1997, we had 84% no-till soybeans and 41% no-till or strip-till corn.

"Those farmers who aren't no-tilling generally have gone to one-pass tillage," he adds.

Ecologist Gammon says the increase in conservation tillage probably has been a key factor in the improved aquatic life.

"It is difficult to measure the exact impact it has had," he says. "However, despite heavy rains through most of the '90s, and thus a greater potential for sediment in our streams, we have had a continuation of good fish populations and fish diversity. I really had expected a reduction in fish numbers, but that hasn't happened."

Gammon says sunfish, white crappies, catfish, bullheads and darter populations have increased markedly. If there are a couple of springs without heavy rains, the ecologist expects more smallmouth bass.

"The stream has come back," he states.

NRCS's Fisher, who is a weekend sportsman, has first-hand proof of improved aquatic life in the area.

"I fish a couple of the other area creeks because they're closer to home," he reports. "And I have seen a remarkable improvement in stream quality during the past 10 years. In the late '80s, the creeks had mostly silt on the bottoms, and you squished mud if you walked in them. Now the water is clearer and the bottoms are gravel and sand."

Fisher says it's not unusual for him to catch 10 or 12 smallmouth bass, along with rock bass, per outing.

"I throw most of them back," he says.

At the same time Putnam County farmers have increased their no-till/strip-till acreage, they've achieved top-notch yields.

"Our county yields have continued to rise," says Fisher. "Good no-till managers are averaging 140-bu corn and 50- to 55-bu soybeans."

The county NRCS staff has worked extensively with farmers on no-till/strip-till management.

"It has been our top priority," says Fisher.

NRCS personnel hold numerous no-till/strip-till field days. And each winter they have meetings around the county, with 20-30 farmers at each location exchanging information on no-till technology.

"The Soil and Water Conservation District sponsors a large annual conservation expo that draws 200 to 300 people each summer," Fisher reports.

Putnam County farmers are now putting in grass buffer strips along stream banks as part of their conservation programs. The strips, which average 60' wide, filter out soil, fertilizer and chemicals.

"Some of the funding for this comes under the CRP and some from a State of Indiana program," Fisher explains. "We have utilized every dollar available for buffers."

The combination of conservation tillage and riparian buffer strips promises a positive future for aquatic life in area streams, says Gammon.

Farmers and fish are all benefiting, he states.

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