UNO researcher helps farmers bridge the gap between productivity and conservation

Charlotte Reilly

To outsiders, Nebraska seems like one long corn field on the way to Colorado. To Nebraskans, those fields are money in the bank.

“You can see your return from your work, and it’s rewarding,” said Patrick Faughn, Nebraskan farmer.

University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO) student Dillon Klein is trying to help farmers see that conservation and productivity go hand in hand through his Fund for Undergraduate Scholarly Experiences (FUSE) project studying tilled and no-till fields. No-till fields are covered in crop residue, but soil in tilled fields is broken up and exposed.

“In the process of breaking up that soil, you lose the aggregation, which is the natural way a soil clumps together,” said Ashlee Dere, UNO geography professor. “The tillage, although it temporarily fluffs up the soil, can break up those natural aggregates and, in the end, end up causing bad infiltration.”

Klein became interested in soil erosion when he noticed his favorite fishing spots were deteriorating. Beautiful lakes were becoming algae covered swamps. Algae takes over because of agricultural runoff, when nutrients are washed out of the soil and into the water.

Agricultural runoff makes a big impact in states like Nebraska. Ninety-one percent of Nebraskan land is used for farming or ranching, according to Farmers’ practices affect the entire population’s soil and water.

“I’m a city kid, but I thought different farming practices could make an impact,” Klein said.

Klein studied how agricultural runoff and nutrient leaching, the loss of water-soluble nutrients in soil, affects till and no-till fields during heavy rain and water events. He found they leached about the same, however no-till fields hold onto moisture and organic carbon better.

Klein was also able to see the aggregation up close. The no-till fields he examined had openings in the soil, where water could seep through. The tilled fields had a hard-pan, heavily compacted soil that cannot be penetrated by roots.

“The roots (in the no-till) were penetrating deeper, there was more insect and microbial life,” Klein said. “There were more worm trails. With tilled soil, they hit that hard-pan and started spreading out.”

Keith Glewen, an extension educator at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, has been helping Nebraska farmers care for their soil since the 1970’s. He said methods like no-till help prevent soil loss throughout the Midwest.

“In Saunders county Nebraska, since 1860, we have lost the top 12 inches of soil in this county,” Glewen said. “It’s down the Mississippi River, down to the delta of Louisiana, and you know we don’t even a get Christmas card from those folks.”

When pioneers first settled in Nebraska, they had to break the prairie in order to survive. “You can’t fault them for tearing it up because they needed to plant crops and put food on the table,” Glewen said.

However, modern farmers have access to tools that make tilling unnecessary. “Back then, the crop residue was their challenge because in order to get good seed-soil contact, they had to somehow destroy the residue,” Glewen said. “Today, farmers have planters that can manage the residue and at the same time place the seed in the soil for it to grow.”

The residue, or the left-over corn and bean stalks, act as armor during heavy rain events. They prevent tons of soil from washing downhill. When farmers till the soil, the residue is destroyed and the soil is left exposed.

“Where we are standing, this soil was placed here about 12,000 years ago,” Glewen said. “If I worked hard enough at it, I bet within a 5-year period I could lose a significant portion of it through farming practices.”

No-till doesn’t just prevent soil erosion. It saves farmers time and money. Farmers have to spend less time in the field and the healthy soil leads to a higher crop production.

Tilling can cause crops to grow faster at first because the sun is able to reach them better, but eventually the soil becomes dried out or eroded.

“When you come to harvest it’s amazing the yield difference between till and no-till,” Faughn said. “No-till could produce 20 more bushels.”

According to the University of Missouri, one bushel of corn produces almost three gallons of ethanol and 17 pounds of livestock feed. Even with all of the proven benefits of no-till, some farmers aren’t willing to change.

“They’re scared because they have been farming a certain way for years,” Glewen said. “There’s just that apprehension that’s hard to get past.”

However, farmers like the Faughns have been no-tilling for years. Faughn wants to make sure the soil remains profitable for future farmers, like his son Liam.

“We use these soils intensively,” Deere said. “We want to make sure we are able to sustain them so we can continue to have productive agriculture in this region.”