No matter what the television meteorologists or the Farmers’ Almanac says for winter forecasts, most rural people in Indiana spend some time getting ready for winter. Propane tanks are topped off, firewood is prepared and stacked, windows are checked to make sure they’re not leaking, insulation is added, water pipes are protected, and heating and cooling companies are busy doing annual maintenance on furnaces.
If you’re a farmer or a landowner who rents out cropland, is your farm also ready for a potentially long, hard winter? Are your fields blanketed with residue remaining from this year’s crop, protecting the soil surface from water and wind erosion? Have you planted cover crops on fields most susceptible to water and wind erosion?
How do crop residue, less tillage and cover crops protect and winterize your soil? Many areas of the state are subject to water and wind erosion. Leaving crop residue in place, along with a green cover, will protect the soil surface from eroding from either wind or rainfall. A secondary benefit is that many of these areas prone to wind erosion also get large snow events, and standing corn stubble and cover crops can reduce snow drift. Trapping snow in corn stubble or a cover crop along roads reduces the amount of snow blowing onto those roads, making them safer.
Need more cover crops
Indiana farmers have planted around a million acres of cover crops per year over the last few years, helping the state to become a national leader in cover crop adoption. These acres have been “winterized.” The fields have been planted to cover crops to protect the soil, scavenge available nutrients, feed soil microbiology and improve soil organic matter.
A million acres may seem like a lot of cover crops until you consider that is less than 10% of the cropland planted to row crops in Indiana. Over the last few years, much of Indiana received at least one intense rainfall event annually on semifrozen soil. Rainfall events are most problematic when the topsoil has warmed enough so that it is no longer frozen, but the soil below is still frozen.
This rainfall cannot infiltrate the soil and is 100% runoff. These events almost always lead to erosion of topsoil that must be dealt with in the spring before planting. Crop residue and a green, growing cover crop will go a long way to reduce erosion, protect the soil and improve water quality.
If all of Indiana’s cropland were winterized with a green, growing cover crop, the positive impact on the water quality of the Great Lakes, the Wabash River, the Ohio River, the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico would be tremendous! But also think how much valuable topsoil would be retained where it belongs.
There is much work to do if all of Indiana is to become winterized. Join the soil health movement today and see the benefits tomorrow and every day to come. Turn your crop fields green in the winter and show visitors that Indiana farmers are doing their part to protect their soil.
Donovan is a district conservationist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service. He writes on behalf of the Indiana Conservation Partnership.