Big machinery and conservation

Iowa’s soil and water conservation advocates are asking farmers to match machinery size with their soil conservation needs when farming Iowa’s steep slopes. Large, wide equipment is often difficult to maneuver around many of Iowa’s traditional conservation practices, causing many farmers to reduce or eliminate conservation where it is most needed.

Big machinery and conservation

Iowa’s soil and water conservation advocates are asking farmers to match machinery size with their soil conservation needs when farming Iowa’s steep slopes. Large, wide equipment is often difficult to maneuver around many of Iowa’s traditional conservation practices, causing many farmers to reduce or eliminate conservation where it is most needed.

Mark Hanna, Extension ag engineer at Iowa State University, says farmers need to consider what is best long term for the land they farm. “In sloping areas that benefit from contouring, it’s often not practical to use wide equipment used in flatter areas,” he says. “Tighter turns nearer the top of slopes can minimize the capacity effects of equipment that is too wide.”

For decades, Iowa farmers have been planting crops along the contour, instead of up and down slopes, and implementing other erosion control measures on their farms to help reduce the risk of soil erosion and prevent crops from washing away. But as farmers work more acres and upgrade to larger equipment to improve efficiencies, conservation methods and structures, like grassed waterways and terraces, are all too often perceived as production obstacles rather than necessary tools to protect the environment.

Erosion causes soil to degrade over time, which can substantially decrease the soil’s productivity. This stems from reduced topsoil depth, organic matter and nutrient availability. Unproductive soil can also lead to an increase in inputs, costing the farmer money long term and increasing the risk of nutrient runoff or leaching.

Key Points

Super-sized equipment isn’t suited for farming highly erodible ground.

Need to match machinery size to soil conservation needs on steep slopes.

Machinery getting wider is an increasing concern in areas of Iowa.

Use smaller planters

LuAnn Rolling, district conservationist with USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service in Allamakee County, says although 24- to 48-row planters may be useful in central Iowa or other flat areas across Iowa, they don’t make as much sense in areas like northeast Iowa.

Rolling believes that a 12- or 16-row planter on steeper slopes is the maximum, with many slopes even too steep for these, to help maintain conservation practices. “It takes about 60 feet to turn big equipment,” she says. “Grassed headlands [field borders] are now either gone, or there is just a narrow strip of grass with 24 or 48 rows up and down the hill beside them.”

Rolling says farmers are also taking older terraces out altogether because 24-row and larger planters require about 60 feet per pass. She says many older terraces have about 90 feet of farmable space between them.

“Larger planters can’t operate on older front slope lengths,” notes Rolling. “Farmers are planting north-south or east-west because their equipment is too big to make those turns.”

Jim Lahn, NRCS district conservationist in Plymouth County in northwest Iowa, says large farm equipment is becoming an excuse for not maintaining or even installing soil conservation practices. “On a daily basis, I hear farmers say they won’t install grassed waterways because the 90-foot or 120-foot spray booms almost always result in the herbicide killing the waterway’s vegetation,” he says.

Lahn says farmers don’t necessarily need to downsize their spray booms to accommodate waterways. “If a farmer maps the waterway boundary using GPS, they can add that layer to the onboard computer data for the sprayer, and the sprayer will automatically shut off over the grassed waterway and not kill the vegetation.”

Tough on grass waterways

Large equipment is also a problem for grassed waterways in northeast Iowa. “Our hills are very steep and often irregular with grassed waterways,” says Rolling. “The larger equipment can’t maneuver to properly shut off at the waterway, so they are running up and down along the waterways, leaving tire tracks, which wash all year long.”

Rhett Schildroth, senior product manager for Kinze Manufacturing Inc., says waterways can easily be managed with auto-section control when planting. “Additionally, for farmers who plant the bulk of their fields with a 24-row planter, one option is to go back in with a six- or eight-row planter to fill in the ends and corners,” he says. “This allows farmers to maximize both productivity and conservation.”

NRCS soil conservationist Jacob Groth questions whether larger equipment is more efficient on hilly ground. “The time farmers spend maneuvering around obstacles, such as terraces, and turning to plant point rows decreases any efficiency gained with larger equipment,” he says.

Groth says there are farmers making smart management decisions, with conservation in mind. “Some producers are keeping a 12-row or smaller planter to plant fields not suited for their larger equipment. Others are experimenting with different hitches for equipment and GPS configurations with autosteer to keep the planter between the rows on the contour.”

Larger equipment is to blame in some cases for farmers quitting no-till on steep slopes, choosing to till the soil because they slide down the slope enough to miss their target seedbed. “This sliding hurts the stand and ultimately the yield in no-till situations,” Groth notes.

“But don’t give up,” he adds. “There are ways to make soil conservation practices work. For more information, visit your local NRCS office at the USDA Service Center in your county.”

Johnson is a public affairs specialist for NRCS in Iowa.

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NO CONSERVATION: The increasing size of farm machinery is making it more difficult for row crop farmers to maneuver Iowa’s hillier ground. This farmer in the Loess Hills is planting down the hill, instead of along the contour. There are no visible conservation practices, such as residue management, terraces or grassed waterways to help reduce risk of erosion.

This article published in the March, 2014 edition of WALLACES FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2014.

Field Conservation Maintenance/Practices

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