What do small farmers do to prevent soil erosion

Soil erosion can cause a lot of damage not only to your soil but also to your crops. Knowing which type of erosion might affect you and take steps to prevent any damage in the first place is another important step to become a successful small farmer.

The most effective way to deal with soil erosion is to maintain an all year round ground cover with plants or mulch. Another option is to reduce stress on the soil by minimizing tilling and other activities harming the integrity of the upper dirt layer. Building drainage paths can help to reduce damage until the soil has recovered.

Preventing and preparing for soil erosion is another big part when taking care of a property. Erosion does not only affect sloped fields, as flat ones are also common to face issues with a huge waterfall. Let’s first have a look at the different types of erosion before we start looking into how to solve these problems.

What is soil erosion

When soil erodes, the top layer of soil is carried away by an external force like water or wind. Soil erosion can be seen in many different forms, so here are some of the more commonly occurring ones.

  • Splash erosion: This is caused by raindrops hitting the bare ground. The impact will result in a small crater shaped erosion pushing away loose dirt from the area of impact.
  • Sheet erosion: During sheet erosion, a very thin sheet of the upper dirt layer will start to move. This kind of erosion mostly happens at hillsides and is considered one of the lesser harmful kinds of erosion.
  • Rill erosion: Rill erosion happens when rain collects to small streams, creating small rills down a hill. This is the most common and also harmful erosion for small farmers
  • Gully erosion: A Gully forms when Rill erosion is left unchecked for a long time and a huge amount of water is going down a slope creating a huge gap in the soil.

Besides the erosion caused by water, there are also different types caused by wind, these include

  • Suspension: This causes very small dirt particles to be picked up by the wind completely. These particles can be carried very high into the air and travel a huge distance before settling down again.
  • Saltation: Most of the erosion caused by wind is a process of Saltation. This means small dirt particles are lifted into the air and travel at fast speed along a diagonal path. Hitting the ground again will cause them to catapult other particles in the air and damage both soil and vegetation this way.
  • Creep: Surface Creep happens when particles are too heavy to be lifted up in the air. The wind will just push them along the ground causing the ground to loosen up even further.

Now that we know what erosion is, lets look at what is causing it.

What causes soil erosion

As mentioned before Soil erosion is mainly caused by water and wind. There are still some other types of soil erosion like glacial erosion, but they won’t bother you or your farm in most cases, which is why to choose to exclude those.

More intense rainfalls and stronger wind in the last years only increase the problem of soil erosion, but luckily there are a lot of contributing factors, which can be prevented. These factors include things like:

  • Tillage: Tilling is the leading cause for erosion on farms besides bad soil drainage. Tilling disturbs the whole soil structure and exposes the top layer to weather conditions.
  • Lack of vegetation: Removing a lot of natural vegetation exposes the upper soil layer to wind and water. Lack of smaller root systems from weeds, which do normally hold together the top layer, will further increase the amount of erosion taking place.
  • Grazing: Animals will expose soil by removing the top layer of plants like grass and shrubs. They will also churn up the soil with their hooves. Animals like pigs also actively will break the soil cover with tilling (This is mostly a problem in dry conditions).
  • Lack of Trees: Larger root structures at the side of your field can also stabilize soil during harsher conditions. While this does not prevent erosion in a larger area, it does protect the immediate surrounding area of the tree.
  • Lack of organic matter in soil: Organic matter functions like a sponge in the soil, sucking up all the water hitting the ground. Lack of this property can cause water to collect and run down the hill rather fast leading to rill erosion.

Why is it important to prevent soil erosion

Not that we know what soil erosion is and what causes it, let us look at why it is a bad thing and should be prevented. There are a lot of factors to consider here, separated into two categories, the on-side, and the off-side effects.

On-side effects are probably the most important to you, as they will affect your farm directly. When topsoil erodes a lot of nutrient dense dirt is washed away, leaving you with a lower overall quality of the soil. Furthermore, seeds and even small plants can be washed away reducing your production even more. The ability to hold water will also decrease the more the top layer is washed away, leaving your property even more vulnerable.

The soil has to go somewhere after being washed away, which leads us to the off-side effects of erosion. This dirt will travel until it reaches some kind of running water like a stream or river, taking with it, all the material added to the soil, like fertilizers and pesticides. This can pose a serious issue on a larger scale, as water contamination is a huge topic in areas with a lot of erosion.

Another problem with erosion is the increase in flooding risk. Soil quality will decrease over time leaving your fields much more exposed to water. without the ability to absorb the rain properly floods can accrue.

Erosion caused by wind is normally less damaging, but can also cause a lot of problems. Damaging crops by either fast flying dirt particles, to much soil covering a seedling or exposing seeds to the harsh weather conditions by blowing away the cover layer are all due to wind erosion.

The list goes on, but you get the gist of it. So now the to most important part: How to prevent all that from happening?

How to prevent soil erosion

There are a lot of different approaches to fix soil erosion, here I want to cover the most effective methods in my opinion. Hence, getting the best result for the least amount of work.

  • Mulching: Mulching is a great way to lessen the impact of erosion on your field, it’s not only fast to cover your field with hay or woodchips, it will also break down over time and add a lot of very helpful nutrients to your soil. This method helps to reduce the impact of water and wind on your land but does not completely eliminate their effect.
  • Always keep a top layer: Always keeping a top layer on your ground is the most effective and easy way to prevent erosion. All you have to do is grow a crop of your choice, I really like green manure to not only improve soil quality but also increase the overall structure of the soil. If you do not want to use green manure, use another plant which can hold your soil together until you want to plant again.
  • Optimize watering: Sometimes the cause of erosion can be just to much water. Providing just enough water and not drowning your plants helps to prevent issues with heavy rainfall. One way to accomplish better water use is a drip-irrigation system or other low-water intensive irrigation methods.
  • Crop rotation: The rotation between plants with deep and shallow roots help to structure your soil properly, preventing erosion even further. Leftover organic matter will slowly break down and act like a sponge absorbing huge quantities of water, which will help to preserve your land.
  • Use raise-beds with barriers: Using physical barriers to prevent erosion is also a great way to avoid running into any soil depletion due to erosion. This is, however, a lot of work to set up and does not work on a larger scale. Using raise-beds in your backyard however is a great way to prevent any erosion from happening.
  • Don’t allow animals on your farmland: Not allowing any animals on your farmland will help the plants to cover your soil so they can develop a basic root structure. If you have the possibility to choose where your animals graze using areas with less erosion is beneficial, but for most animal owners limiting and rotating the grazing land available for these animals is the easiest compromise.
  • Reduce tilling (or no-till): Alternative tilling methods like ridge tilling can help to lessen damage to the soil caused by this process. The No-till method might also be a great possibility depending on your situation. Using a No-till coulter is one alternative to regular planting Machinery.
  • Grow trees: Planting trees on areas with high erosion damage can help to build up a good root structure and lessen the damage caused by water and wind in the future. Sadly this process does take a lot of time and is not a great or fast fix for an immediate problem.
  • Terraces and drainage: The most powerful tool to deal with erosion is terracing and building a proper drainage system into you farmland. This will prevent erosion damage from occurring but requires a lot of work or money. There are a lot of great ways to artificially improve soil drainage, like building an underground drainage pipe system or overground water paths. This should only be used in areas with very high rainfall, it does not substitute good soil quality and building up your soil is one of the most important jobs as a farmer.

Related Questions

How does soil erosion affect food production? It will result in less yield by reducing soil quality and taking away a lot of nutrients from the plants. Damage to the plants are another common result of erosion, which can not only reduce the productivity of a plant but also kill it completely.

Why does soil degrade due to farming? Modern farming includes a lot of tilling and bare ground without any natural cover. Plants also use up nutrients in the ground, all of this combined can result in very poor soil quality over time. Low quality soil is very easy to erode leading to even more problems long term.