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Serving: United States

Teachable moment to sell value of conservation practices

Lee Schnell
CONSERVATION SEASON: District conservationist Lee Schnell says it’s easier to sell the value of soil conservation practices if you are standing next to someone looking at what used to be a level field but is now filled with gullies.
Spring rains paint “horrific” pictures of what happens when soils aren’t protected.

One farmer says he planted the first time this spring for practice. Another watched 20 acres of tobacco plants set in a field along a creek wash away. Mother Nature put on a clinic this spring in Indiana, and the take-home lesson won’t be forgotten soon.

“Conservation practices make dollars and ‘sense,’” says Lee Schnell, district conservationist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, based in Orange County. He believes this is a key time to get out the message about how soil conservation practices can generate a big return on your investment.

Here’s an Indiana Prairie Farmer interview with Schnell, based on recent observations.

How much was your area affected by the big spring rains this year? We saw some horrific sights in some areas, especially on highly erodible land. Some areas received 12 inches over a three-day period. Other areas were hit with 8 to 9 inches of rain over three to four days. Bottom-land fields were also hit hard where flooding occurred.

My job basically is to sell the value of conservation practices. While lots of soil was lost and the scenes weren’t pretty where soils weren’t protected, they made very good selling points. It certainly made it easy for everyone to see the value of conservation practices, especially when you have a major event like this one.

What is one practice people can do to help reduce soil losses if such a storm hits in the future? Cover crops definitely help. I especially promote species of cover crops which don’t winterkill. If a species dies out over winter, you may have received value from it, but it doesn’t provide much protection in the spring against soil erosion during rain events. Annual ryegrass and cereal rye are two good choices.

Some people are leery of annual ryegrass because of its reputation for being difficult to kill in the spring. What is your experience with it? If you follow recommendations, we see people having good results terminating it. We usually advise that people wait until they have mowed their yard twice in the spring, then look for an opportunity to terminate annual ryegrass. If you own your own sprayer, you likely have a better chance to manage it because you can determine when you spray it without relying on someone else.

If you don’t feel comfortable with it, you can start out with cover crops that do typically die over the winter, including radish, turnip and spring oats. But you’re going to see more protection and more return on your investment from cover crops that also grow in the spring.

How can someone actually realize more dollars in returns with cover crops? One way is to sow cover crops that can actually produce nitrogen that can be used by a corn crop. Crimson clover is one cover crop that can fix nitrogen and produce a reasonable amount of N before you terminate it in the spring.   

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