Winter soil erosion

You might be surprised to know that topsoil erodes even in the winter when it is frozen. As you can see in the photograph from southern Minnesota where they do a lot of fall tillage, the topsoil does not stay put. Exactly how does topsoil move into the snow drift in the ditch in this photograph? Let me explain. This road between New Richland and Waldorf, Minnesota, runs east-west. The prevailing winds that bring snow in the upper Midwest are usually west/northwest winds. That means if the field on the north side of this road is loosened up by fall tillage, the wind, as it blows the snow into the ditch, will also pick up some of the soil particles and deposit them with the snow, into the ditch. This field was in corn last year, since you can see a little corn stubble showing up in the black topsoil. The farm operator chisel-plowed this field after harvest last fall.

The next question we have to ask is, so what if the soil erodes? Another related question is, is it possible to create new topsoil with conservation practices?



This is a photograph from February 8, 2017 on a state highway between New Richland and Waldorf, Minnesota. You can also see the snowmobile tracks in the snow.

The most popular beer in my neighborhood

From time to time I pick up cans and bottles in the ditches around my house. (There is no lack of junk in our rural ditches.) Today on my morning run I noticed a lot of junk in the ditches, so I went back out in my truck to pick them up. Here are the results:


Cans and bottles i collected on February 6.

Coors Light 6
Busch Light 3
Bud Light 3
Michelob Ultra 1
Pepsi 2
Mountain Dew 2
Monster 1
Red Bull 1
Mike’s Harder 1
Gold Peak 1
Powerade 1
Red Bull 1

In this completely UNscientific sample, we see that (1) beer is more popular than soda pop, (2) of the beer, Coors Light is most popular, (3) of the soda pop, Pepsi and Mountain Dew are equally popular, (4) energy drinks and soda pop are equally popular, and (5) iced tea, hard cider, and Powerade are least popular.

Relative feed values

Since my ewes are preferring the baled rye to the alfalfa/orchard grass (which is moldy this year), I was curious how the relative feed value (RFV) would compare. I had both the rye and the alfalfa/orchard grass analyzed for fiber, protein and relative feed value and was surprised to find the rye has nearly the RFV of the hay.

The rye bales came off my farm on May 21 when we baled 10 acres of rye cover crop prior to planting soybeans. We got 46 large round bales that day. I do not have enough bale feeders for feeding the extra bales, so I am feeding them freestanding which means a lot of waste. I will be able to use this as mulch in my garden next spring.


Fiber (neutral detergent, dry basis)

Rye: 67.9

Alfalfa/orchardgrass: 61.4

Protein (dry basis)

Rye: 7.31

Alfalfa/orchardgrass: 16.44

RFV (dry basis)

Rye: 74.2


By their eating habits, the ewes were telling me that the RFV was better than the alfalfa, but I suspect much of the problem is the mold in the alfalfa.

Water, top soil & conservation practices

Depending on the weather and soil conditions, it can be difficult to see the value of terraces with our own eyes. Last week, though, with the ground frozen and considerable rain, the water stayed on the surface so we could easily see the runoff collect behind the terraces. The concept behind terraces is that they slow down the flow of runoff and thereby reducing the downhill movement of topsoil, also known as soil erosion.

The drainage tile intake is visible on the front side of the terrace. This is a safety valve so that if there is heavy rain, the terrace will not be damaged.


Rain water collected behind the terraces last week. The ground was frozen, so the water could not be absorbed into the ground. Notice the cover crops in the foreground. The brown mustard has winter killed already and the cereal rye is showing some green. The rye will stay dormant for a couple more months and then take off again in March. By planting time it should be several feet tall.

But soil erosion really does cost dollars and cents! Let’s take a look at recent data collected on my farm regarding the row-crop acres, using a tool called SoilCalculator owned by Agren, Inc.

With conventional tillage SoilCalculator would predict $96.49/acre loss over 10 years whereas no-till (no fall tillage) with cover crops and terraces would predict $5.22/acre loss over the same period. The loss comes from soil erosion which includes both a yield and a nutrient loss. An important point to remember is that the presence of soil erosion does not necessarily mean that the eroded soil leaves the farm. In fact, that soil may move within the farm to another location farther down hill. In this calculation the inputs are priced this way:

Corn: $4.00/bushel

Nitrogen: .47/lb.

Phosphate: .48/lb.

Potash: .41/lb.

To see exactly how a farmer plants corn into a cereal rye cover crop, watch this video: This shows Andrew Shireman of Bluffs, Illinois planting with at 12-row John Deere planter.


Fall tillage in the upper Midwest

Why is fall tillage so common in the upper Midwest? The reasons I am familiar with are the following: (1) the soil warms up faster in the spring, (2) it’s convenient to be able to pull into the field in the spring and plant rather than having to do any tillage, (3) tillage incorporates the corn stubble into the soil, (4) tillage “fluffs up” the soil and breaks up compaction, and (5) it looks good to “button-up” all the field work in the fall and go in to the winter with all work done.

What has made it possible to get all this work done in the fall? Fifty years ago, farmers might be lucky to get the harvest in, much less finish with tillage. The reason is that today with larger, faster equipment we can tear through the acres much faster. For example, my neighbor chisel plows corn stalks with a Steiger-Case IH quadratrack that packs somewhere between 370-620 horsepower.


Moldboard plowing corn stalks on October 19, 2016 near Wells, Minnesota. This John Deere is about a 400 horsepower tractor.

So what could be wrong with fall tillage? Well, the scientists tell us the following: (1) fall tillage allows nitrate and phosphorus to flow into the watersheds (nitrate flows with tile water and phosphorus adheres to soil particles and flows with surface erosion, and (2) tillage increases soil erosion, both by wind and water, since it leaves the topsoil exposed to the elements for approximately six months.



This brown mustard cover crop was seeded September 14, 2016 by plane. After 34 days we have 3 inch root growth on this mustard plant. The mustard will winter kill and the cereal rye that was seeded in the same mix, will continue to grow until planting time. In this way we have living roots in the soil for 12 months a year.

Farming the sun

After two and half years of making a little over 25% of my electricity from a 6-panel PV array, we decided to bump up our production significantly. On June 30 we went online with an additional 18 panels. From July 5 to August 5, with both arrays producing electricity, we made 1275 kWh. My monthly average usage over the last two years is 770 kWh. That gives us an average daily usage of 25.66 kWh. With my new array, I averaged 42.5 kWh/day. In the months of June and July I did not produce enough to satisfy my usage since I had a house full of family with significant demands on hot water (dishwasher, washing machine, showers) and on hot days, the air conditioning. However, on an annual average, we should be producing at least 85-90% of our usage.

24 panels_07132016

Our Friend Donald E. Laughlin (Don was a life-long Quaker Friend) passed away on August 19, 2016. Don wrote a simple, straightforward, and powerful letter (he actually dictated it to others since he was not able to write at that time), to Warren Buffet, the billionaire investor sage of Omaha. Buffet’s portfolio includes MidAmerican Energy, a very large wind energy producer in Iowa. Why would Don, an engineer and inventor, do that? Don was a long-time advocate of renewable distributed energy and therefore urged Buffet to support not just his own renewable energy projects, but also distributed energy projects that individuals build at their own homes. Here is Don’s letter as published in the Des Moines Register on August 9, 2016:

An open letter to Warren Buffett on solar power

Don Laughlin 4:59 p.m. CDT August 9, 2016

Note to readers: Don Laughlin has worked on renewable energy for decades — and lived it. He put up a wind turbine at his country home near West Branch, later moving to Iowa City and filling the roof with solar panels. In his final days, this advocate is pushing his message forward. Now unable to write by hand, he spoke this week of his regret at not sending a letter to billionaire Warren Buffett to make MidAmerican Energy more friendly to rooftop solar. Distributed generation is the issue — helping homeowners get a better return on their solar investment, which MidAmerican has opposed. In Don’s usual positive approach to a contested issue, he dictated this letter from his nursing home bed. It’s a letter to Warren Buffett, but to all of us as well.

— David Osterberg, Mount Vernon, and Nathan Shepherd, Iowa City

Dear Mr. Buffett,

My name is Don Laughlin. I’ve worked in developing solar power for years. I’m also one of your company’s (MidAmerican Energy) customers.

First, I want to compliment you for the great deal of wind power that MidAmerican has built and is continuing to build. One area where your good renewable work has not penetrated, however, is distributed renewable energy. Solar photovoltaic panels installed on rooftops are a great untapped source of electricity. If you were to change your company’s policy to encourage distributed generation, you would allow your customers to be part of the solution to climate change.

I recently read in the Atlantic Monthly about your influence on your children’s philanthropies. I admire your son Howard and his important work on eliminating hunger in the world. Please encourage him to remember the potential advantages of distributed electricity to help eliminate hunger in Africa. At the same time, you, perhaps more than others, are in a great position to help some electric customers in our country reduce the terrible effects of climate change, which makes African farming much harder.

I am not able to hand-write this letter myself because of a recent stroke, and at 93 I am nearing the end of my life on this planet. As a parting message, I want to encourage you in the strongest terms to use your influence to make distributed solar energy a major source of electricity at all your companies and in Howard’s foundation work. You are both in a position to change the world. Please use your influence.

— Don Laughlin of Iowa City”


Soil testing 101

We harvested our first crop of alfalfa/orchard grass hay on May 21. In order to know how much fertilizer to put on the hay ground we have to take soil cores and send them in for analysis. This will tell us what we need to put on for good hay yields for the rest of the season (alfalfa usually yields 3 cuttings a year, sometimes 4 in a good year).



Step one: Obtain a soil probe and sample bags from your local farmer cooperative. Use the soil probe to take a core. Push the probe into the soil by standing on the foot arm.


Step two: Pull the probe back up from the ground. Open the probe, make sure there is at least 8 inch core, and deposit it into the bucket. In a five acre field, take 5-10 cores.


Step three: Mix the cores in the bucket by hand until they are well mixed together. Then, fill the soil test bag to the indicated line and take in for analysis.

Recommendations from the University of Nebraska indicate that alfalfa requires P and K for good yields. A worksheet for calculating hay expenses from Iowa State University might be useful as well. For historical perspective, look at this 1912 publication on growing alfalfa in Iowa.

%d bloggers like this: