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The Cost of Soil Erosion
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This past week was difficult to cope with whether you were a farmer or lived in town. Over five days of wind combined with dry conditions and exposed soil made lives difficult for everyone. As dramatic as the winds and blowing soil were, the 1930s were even worse. The cost of blowing soil included a vehicular death due to poor visibility and numerous accidents. In parts of the state roads were closed and events cancelled. As this is written, the wind has settled down and the skies are blue instead of a hazy brown. Unfortunately there is little chance of rain in the forecast. Other than the unfortunate loss of life and car accidents what other costs are incurred during an event like this.
• Farmers, especially on the sandier soils, lost some areas of the field as the wheat was sandblasted and/or covered up by blowing soil. Some of the wheat was killed and some while not destroyed will suffer yield reductions. In some areas where corn was just starting to come up there was also damage. Some can recover if not buried to deep but it was set back.
• In some areas soil drifts occurred and will need to be addressed prior to planting.
• Some drainage ditches also accumulated soil and will have to be cleaned to function properly when it does rain.
• People with COPD, other heart/lung problems, or allergies suffered. All of us breathing this air deposited some soil in our lungs. Some studies have indicated that everyone living in our part of Kansas have some degree of brown lung.
• The winds further depleted moisture from bare soil already short of profile moisture.
• For many it was too windy, visibility was too poor, or both.  This kept producers and applicators out of the field creating a work backlog.
• The most long-term and negative consequence was the loss of soil surface horizon material (topsoil). Along with that soil went nutrients, organic matter, and soil tilth. Where producers were already farming subsoil as a result of previous erosion events the results are even worse. The A horizon (topsoil) is the most developed portion of the soil profile, the part normally most favorable for crop growth, biological activity, water holding capacity, and the most fertile portion of the soil. As the A horizon is lost, crop production becomes more expensive and management intensive. In nature, under ideal conditions, it takes several hundred years to produce an inch of topsoil. And Western Kansas doesn’t qualify as ideal conditions. If just half an inch of topsoil was last this past week, it won’t be reproduced in our lifetimes.
On the plus side, more and more producers are practicing some form of conservation tillage and that minimized losses from those fields. And we can offset some soil loss through adding organic matter in the form of manures and other sources. Finally, if economically possible, producers can increase fertilizer rates and make other adjustments to overcome this damage. Long-term, however, we must find ways to make our soil resources less vulnerable to wind and water erosion.