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Soil Erosion - Understanding and Prevention

A guide to erosion: What causes it, and how can you prevent it?

Although its effects are not always immediately visible, soil erosion can be a serious problem for farmers. When soil erodes, water, wind or ice picks up valuable particles and minerals, reducing soil productivity. Also, the loss of a surface layer can make soil harder to till and manage.

Forms of erosion

Soil can erode in multiple ways:

  • Sheet erosion occurs when a thin top layer of soil is taken by running water.
  • Rill erosion happens when running water forms small channels.
  • Gully erosion is when running water forms large channels that can impede field equipment.
  • Surface creep erosion is a slow-moving erosion process usually occurring down a sharp slope. The process is heightened by freezing and thawing or when the soil is saturated. 
  • Saltation is caused when wind picks up very small soil particles and moves them a short distance over the surface of the ground.
  • Suspension is also caused by wind, but the soil particles are finer and the distance moved is much greater.
  • Tillage erosion happens when soil is moved from the top of the field to the bottom. The result is shallow soils at the top and deeper soils at the bottom.

Erosion prevention

Treating your fields to prepare for water runoff is essential. There are different steps you can take to limit erosion.

  • Make sure your soil is adequate for the crop type. If the soil cannot handle a certain type of plant, then do not try to grow it there.
  • Plants should be kept strong and healthy. Apply fertilizer and lime at recommended rates to ensure hardy, quick-growing plants.
  • Use proper tillage methods to ensure that the previous crop's residue is conserved.
  • Where possible, plant your crops in rows to be on the same level as the slope of the land, instead of top to bottom of the field. The result is that each row protects the row below it by trapping the runoff water. Consequently, valuable minerals are trapped as well.
  • Where possible, plant cover crops to reduce erosion and keep valuable nutrients intact.
  • In certain circumstances, a grass waterway or diversion might be necessary to direct water elsewhere.

Soil is a farmer's most valuable resource. Protect your investment by doing everything you can to prevent it from eroding away. For more information on soil erosion and how to prevent it, consult your Southern States Agronomy expert or local Extension resources.

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