A System Approach to Disappearing Topsoil

Joe Christner, Water Quality Technician

June 14, 2018

Most of us have been affected in one way or another by spring taking it’s time to come to our area.  For some of us it was an inconvenience, but for farmers it became a major challenge to get the crops planted in a timely manner.  One of the other things that was unusual about this spring (and will be talked about for a long time) is the three or four intense rain events.  There were reports of four inches of rain in an hour in several parts of the county! In our area, over 2.5 inches of rain per hour is classified as a “100 year” storm event, meaning that there is only a 1% chance of that type of rainfall occurring in any one year.  As a result, the county experienced flash flooding, road closures, and an increase in calls to the Soil & Water office about how to address drainage issues. 

Maybe the most widespread and serious effect was erosion and soil loss on crop fields.  Many tons of top soil per acre were removed from the fields during these rain events.  One of our local crop consultants, “Skip” Stitzlein, considers this the worst year for erosion issues that he’s ever seen.  But erosion and soil loss isn’t limited to farms:  The same problems were experienced on construction sites, dirt roads, road banks, and anywhere the soil was not protected by cover or vegetation. 

A series of heavy (4+inch) rains have struck the Holmes County area in recent months carry countless tons of soil from fields.

A series of heavy (4+inch) rains have struck the Holmes County area in recent months carry countless tons of soil from fields.

In Ohio, Soil and Water Conservation Districts were created specifically to address soil loss and erosion problems back in the 1940’s.  Through the years, our mission has grown to encompass other responsibilities and initiatives, but the intense rainfall events over the past few years remind us of our roots.  More importantly, our board of supervisors designates erosion prevention year after year as a county priority in our Annual Plan of Work.  We may have come a long way from the erosion problems of 60 years ago, but we are faced with new ones today.

With that in mind, our office is trying something new in 2018.  We have a well-established cover crop cost-share program, that has been in place since 2008.  Most of the counties in the Muskingum Watershed participate in this same program, where a farmer receives a reimbursement for using cover crops in their farming operation, which has documented benefits in reducing soil loss.  10 years later, though, we have learned a lot, and decided it was time to support the farmers around here who want to take cover cropping to the next level.  With the assistance of the Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District and our partners at the Coshocton SWCD, we have developed a two-year pilot program for our counties to accomplish this goal.

            One of the guiding themes in developing this pilot was the importance of emphasizing a “systems approach”.  Farming includes more than just putting seeds in the ground: A farm’s system encompasses their tillage practices, cash crop rotations, species and diversity of cover crops, and nutrient management.  When suggesting practices like cover crops to use on a farm, we need to look at the whole picture, and take into account the overall system.  That helped guide the way we approached our new program. 

A farmer applies for our program by identifying the fields where he intends to plant cover crops.  We rank those fields using slopes and crop production as some of the more important factors in assigning point values, but this year we are giving more points to increased management practices.  The top ranking 600 acres will receive $15/acre in reimbursement, instead of the standard $12.  If those acres are planted by September 29, there is an additional incentive payment of $5/acre.  This encourages the farmer to manage for cover establishment that not only has the greatest chance for success, but the best chance to have enough growth to combat erosion during the winter, and on into spring.

            We think that this program will result in greater successes integrating cover crops into a farmer’s overall system, which results in reducing soil loss and erosion. Additionally, our pilot serves an educational purpose, where farmers will hopefully increase their degree of understanding how to use cover crops as part of their overall farming system.  If you have questions about using cover crops on your farm, or are interested in applying to the 2018 cover crop program, contact our office at 330-674-2811.

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Joe Christner, Water Quality Technician

Joe Christner came to Holmes SWCD in 2001 with experience and knowledge drawn from 20-plus years of dairy farming. He grew up on a small farm near New Bedford, Ohio. His background interest and involvement in agriculture from the time he was a young man give him an empathy and understanding of the needs and concerns of today’s farmers. Joe can assist you with conservation plans for your farming operation, including nutrient management planning and record keeping. Water quality, soil health, and conserving the resources needed for the next generation and beyond is very important to Joe.
Contact Joe at 330-674-2811 or jchristner@co.holmes.oh.us