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The View from Here: Stabilizing our soils, watersheds

Mike Gangwer Published on 23 June 2011
View from airplane

The spring of 2011 will be recorded as a wet and cool one for central Michigan. I spent two weeks at home in Gratiot County and heard this statement from everyone.

Our winter wheat, for instance, is at least three weeks behind its normal growth stage. As of the middle of May, most crop fields had not yet been planted. In any field potholes or depressional areas, water stands, making tillage difficult.

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Farmers were tilling a few fields and in those with better drainage, corn was just planted. One common observation is this: The size of the tillage and planting equipment is enormous, dwarfing our four-bottom moldboard plow and six-row corn planter in Hood River, Oregon.

Certainly one reason is that with such a narrow window of dry weather and the need to get seed in the ground, making use of this time with large equipment is essential. I do not see any moldboard in use … many of them are sitting in farmers’ boneyards behind the shop or machine shed.

Nearly all of the tillage is spring-tooth harrow-like equipment followed by a leveler of sorts that makes a nice seedbed in one pass.

I noticed many fields with corn stalk residue still on the surface. I know there is an urge to get ahead of the tillage in the fall by incorporating this organic residue in the soil, but the cost of losing soil to water or wind erosion is enormous.

Our core practice in the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is of course mitigating water and wind erosion.

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I recently flew my airplane over Sandusky Bay, Ohio, as it empties into Lake Erie. The dramatic outflow of soil sediment into the lake from the bay was telling. I was talking with one of my colleagues in Michigan NRCS about this, and he reported to me some real concern about erosion of soil into surface water.

Farmers are certainly aware of commodity prices today on a global scale. The desire to plant as many acres as possible is obvious, but on certain sensitive areas of the watershed, whether on a field scale or entire watershed covering several townships or counties, the consequence of tillage may be the additional loss of soil as well as the loss of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Nevertheless, seeing many fields with crop residue in place is good news.

Our local NRCS district conservationist reported to me that grazing management is becoming an important practice for many farmers. Grazing can be done in our part of the world about six to seven months out of the year.

The climate is ideally suited for grazing … a rainfed system with relatively cool summer temperatures and soils with sufficient drainage so pasture lands are not destroyed after a rainfall event by hoof traffic.

Another observation is drainage-related. Quite a few fields have perforated plastic tile pipe in large rolls sitting on the edge of the field. Over the 10 years or so I have been in Michigan, the field drainage work is a continuum, for sure, but certain years it seems that farmers are redoing previously drained fields moreso than other years.

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This is one of those years for more, and my guess is it has to do with commodity prices and the desire to get that seed in the ground at the right time to maximize crop yield.

Recently, a firm out in Pullman, Washington, Decagon Devices, produced a nicely done webinar about crop growth and the monitoring of water flow through the soil-plant-atmosphere continuum. This monitoring is now mainstream in the commercial sector and no longer just the realm of academia or researchers at the university.

Why? One reason may be again commodity prices, the need to make sure there is no limiting inputs in our agricultural cropping system. The usual ones are nutrients and water, but in our central region of Michigan, the limit may be solar radiation and thus enough heat units.

The webinar made the case that for optimal crop production, water, nutrients and photosynthetic active radiation are required, of course, but if any of them are excessive, they can in fact lower crop yield. We may see that later in the growing season in Michigan if the above-average rainfall and cooler summer temperatures are manifest in this year’s crop growth performance.

One more observation is on the homestead site itself. Over the years many farm homes have been vacated. The land itself is farmed, of course, but the homestead is empty and soon falls into disrepair.

I don’t know the stories behind these vacancies, but my guess is that it is economics as well. I have written many columns over the years about farm families vacating a farm for a large number of reasons, and sometimes the size and economy of scale are such that the farmland is leased or rented out and the family can no longer afford to live in the farmstead home.

My guess is that a buyer could purchase one of these homes very reasonably and live out in the countryside, but they would bear the cost of renovating and maintaining the homestead. I can report, though, that there are many vacant homes in Gratiot County and they do show their age quite quickly.

I enjoy my time in Michigan very much. Working in Washington D.C. and in food-insecure countries around the world is a very different environment. Actually coming home helps ground me to the world that we live in. Yes, there are problems for sure, but they pale in comparison to those nearly everywhere else.

The crop fields are remarkably productive, the equipment is very modern and efficient and the landowners are smart, savvy and well tuned into the world of economics, farm prices and business.

In my opinion, one huge factor for this success of American agriculture is private land ownership; with few exceptions, the landowner, the American farmer, is in charge, makes decisions and accepts the rewards and risks inherent in farming itself.

Thankfully, the farm family has a wide network of resources to help them make good decisions and mitigate risk. Farmers do adjust to the marketplace and are not under state control to remain fixed at a certain program of performance.

I am now thinking back to my flight over Lake Erie and noting below the soil sediment carried into the lake as a result of water erosion. I think we can all agree that regardless of what economic or farm family sociologic model we follow, these sediments, while part of the very long-term movement of soils across the landscape, are cause for concern.

Our great conservationist and forester Aldo Leopold, author of A Sand County Almanac (Wisconsin, 1949), once stated in 1934: “use of private land in the public interests” as our nation’s most important problem.

This challenge is with us still today, nearly 80 years later. From my view, it is a worldwide challenge that our global farmers must take seriously. This is the “Land Ethic” Aldo Leopold wrote so eloquently about.

Our challenge now is not just reading the words about soil conservation, but installing and implementing the conservation practices that actually stabilize soils as an outcome.

In the long view, irrespective of what else is going on with our farming systems, stabilizing soils in the fields and watersheds in all the world is one pillar of sustainability for all of humankind on planet Earth. PD

PHOTO: I recently flew my airplane over Sandusky Bay, Ohio, as it empties into Lake Erie. The dramatic outflow of soil sediment into the lake from the bay was telling. Photo by Mike Gangwer.

  • Mike Gangwer

  • Agricultural Scientist
  • USDA-NRCS
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