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Terracing saving tons of soils in the Blacklands

Pat Hensen has believed in the benefits of soil conservation for more than 40 years, first as a conservationist with the Natural Resource Conservation Service (the Soil Conservation Service when he first started) and as a practitioner of what he preached on his own farm.

His latest effort includes terracing a farm he leases in Bell County, Texas, aided by funds from the NRCS environmental quality incentive program (EQIP).

“The fields will be harder to work with terraces,” Hensen says, “but I don’t think I’d be farming these fields long without these terraces. We’ll save a lot of soil.”

Hensen farms in Bell, McLennan and Coryell counties, in the heart of the Texas Blacklands, a region blessed with rich soil and sloping landscapes.

“We worked with NRCS 10 years ago to terrace a farm that was literally washing away,” he says. “Now it’s a good farm. Not all blacklands farms need terraces, but on some erosion rates are high and terracing helps.”

NRCS district conservationist Ray Sisneros estimates terracing Hensen is installing on the Bell County farm, leased acreage next to his home, will save from 2 tons to 2.5 tons of soil per acre every year.

“We’ve done a lot of cutting and plowing to shape the land up,” Hensen says, “and I’ll have to make three or four crops before I get production back to normal where we made the cuts. I’ll need to do a lot of extra plowing where the dozer pushed up sol (to build the terraces).”

He’s spaced terraces 120 feet apart. “That’s pretty close but it’s steeper land.”

Sisneros says NRCS is “promoting terracing in the area as well as grassed waterways.”

EQIP funds, he says, helps landowners afford to apply needed conservation practices.

“EQIP is a cost-share program,” he says, “based on an application and ranking system. Each county gets a set amount of money for EQIP contracts and we fund as many applications as we can.”

He says Bell County had $137,000 last year and funded 32 contracts, ranging from $2,500 to $20,000.

“EQIP gives us a good incentive to do (conservation work),” Hensen says.

He’s also practicing other conservation techniques to save soil and improve production efficiency. Grassed waterways help hold soil and reduced tillage saves moisture and energy.

“We’ve reduced tillage the last few years,” he says. “The price of diesel convinced us to cut back. Diesel is more than 400 percent higher compared to 10 years ago. We paid $2.52 a gallon recently. Ten years ago we paid 48 cents to 50 cents a gallon.”

He figures he’s cut out two or three trips across his fields.

“We don’t cultivate at all and use Roundup Ready corn hybrids varieties.” He plants corn, wheat, oats and coastal bermuda for hay and for 100 head of cattle.

“We plant and spray maybe twice and that’s about all we do until harvest. We plow the land after harvest and if we have weed problems we’ll spray, apply anhydrous and plow it in. We hope that gets us back to planting.”

He says no-till production is not as common in the Blacklands as in other areas. “If the soil didn’t crack so bad we’d see more no-till farming,” he says. “The soil cracks in the root furrow and openings don’t close after planting. Corn stalks don’t stabilize and may fall over.”

He says fertilizer expenses have gone up even more then fuel. “We paid $170 to $190 a ton for anhydrous in 1996 and we had to pay $515 a ton last year.

“We use more fertilizer than we do diesel fuel and we can’t cut back on fertility. We have to fertilize or not plant at all. I may change placement, however. I’ve been broadcasting phosphorus and I’m considering banding it next year.”

Hensen’s corn crop has done fairly well this year, despite a dry summer. “We had a few timely rains that made the crop,” he says. “And we planted early. Late planted corn did not do as well.”

He likes to plant corn in late February. “We were through by March 15 this year. We should make more than 100 bushels per acre. That’s good for the year.”

Wheat was not as good. “A lot of our wheat was not up until January and it did not vernalize,” he says

Hensen says cattle have done well over the dry summer but pastures are beginning to decline and stock tanks are drying up.

Hensen retired from NRCS 10 years ago after 35 years with the agency. “I made my first crop in 1972 and I’ve made a crop every year since. We moved to the Troy farm in 1984. We farm about 600 acres here and another 1,000 in McLennan and Coryell counties.

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