Cropland can be quite susceptible to wind erosion under some conditions, particularly through the winter. Cooler-than-normal temperatures and drought conditions may limit vegetative growth and cover. Burning, tillage, and little crop residue can create a particularly serious hazard. Care should be taken to maintain crop residue through reducing tillage and careful to not remove too much residue through grazing or haying, such as leaving strips unhayed (Figure 1a) or capturing forage sorghum regrowth to occur (Figure 1b).
Figure 1a. Strips of unharvested corn stalks to prevent snow and soil blowing. Photo by John Holman, K-State Research and Extension.
Figure 1b. Forage sorghum regrowth after harvest. Photo by John Holman, K-State Research and Extension.
Winter wheat and other fall-planted crop fields also may be susceptible during periods of low cover in the winter and early spring. This can result in fields blowing out (Figure 2). This is particularly true during drought. Marginally productive cropland may not produce sufficient residue to protect against wind erosion. In addition, overgrazed or poorly vegetated rangeland may also subject to wind erosion. Recent wind conditions have been conducive to erosion (Figure 3a), reduced visibility making for dangerous driving conditions (Figure 3b), given the peak wind gusts that have been recorded in Kansas over the last few days (Figure 4).
Figure 2. Winter wheat stand blown out by wind erosion. Photos by John Holman, K-State Research and Extension.
Figure 3a. Blowing soil in Colby on October 11, 2020. Photo taken by Lucas Haag, K-State Research and Extension.
Figure 3b. Blowing soil reducing visibility. Photo by John Holman, K-State Research and Extension.
Figure 4. Peak 24-hour wind gusts measured at 2 meters (7 feet) between January 14 and January 16, 2021. Map by Kansas Weather Data Library.
It is important to monitor field conditions and identify fields that are in a condition to blow. Such conditions include low vegetation cover and a high proportion of erodible-sized clods (less than 1 mm in size, or about the thickness of a dime). It is better to be proactive and treat potential problems before they occur than to try to react and catch up once a field is actively eroding. Once soil movement has started, it is difficult to completely stop further damage. However, prompt action may prevent a small erodible spot from damaging an entire field or adjacent fields.
Emergency control measures
Mulching. If wind erosion has already started, it can be reduced by mulching with manure or other anchored plant materials such as straw or hay. To be effective, at least 1.5 to 2 tons per acre of straw or grass or 3 to 4 tons per acre of corn or sorghum stover are needed to control areas of erosion, and the straw or hay must be anchored. Residue can be spread by hand, spreader or other mechanical equipment.
A stubble puncher or disk set straight may be used to anchor residue and prevent it from being blown away. Wet manure application should be 15 to 20 tons/acre and not incorporated into the soil. Care should be taken to not add wheel paths parallel to the wind direction as the mulch is applied. Traffic areas and wheel paths can contribute to wind erosion.
Generally, mulches are practical only for small areas, so mulching is most effective when applied before the soil starts to move. Producers should scout fields to identify areas that might be susceptible to wind erosion (low vegetation cover and a high proportion of erodible-sized clods less than the thickness of a dime) if they plan to use mulch or manure to controls.
Emergency tillage. Emergency tillage is a last-resort method that can be effective if done promptly and with the right equipment. The goal of emergency tillage is to make the soil surface rougher by producing resistant clods and surface ridges (Figures 5 and 6). A rough surface reduces wind speed. The larger clods and ridges resist movement and provide traps to catch the moving soil particles.
Chisels with single or only a few tool ranks are frequently used to roughen the soil surface. The combination of chisel point size, speed, and depth that produces the roughest surface with the firmest, most resistant clods should be used for emergency tillage.
Research has shown that a narrow chisel (2 inches wide) on 24- to 54-inch spacing, operated 3 to 6 inches deep will usually bring enough resistant clods to the surface to control erosion on fine-textured (clay-based) soils. A medium shovel (4 inches wide) can be effective for medium-textured soils (loamy soils). Spacings should typically be narrower where there is no cover and wider in areas of partial cover, such as a growing crop or plant residue.
If the erosion conditions recur or persist, a second, deeper chiseling should split the first spacing. Tillage passes should be made perpendicular to the direction of the prevailing wind causing the erosion. First tillage passes should be made on the upwind side of blowing soil to stop the advancing front, and slow the time the furrows are filled in with blowing soil (if tillage is done on the downwind side the furrows will fill rapidly).
Figure 5a. Emergency tillage across 50 percent of the field. Photo courtesy of USDA-ARS Engineering and Wind Erosion Unit, Manhattan, Kansas.
Figure 5b. Emergency tillage perpendicular to wind direction and angled to last tillage operation. (photo by John Holman).
Figure 5c. Tillage to roughen soil surface (photo by John Holman).
Figure 6. Widely spaced shanks used for emergency tillage, making clods to roughen the soil surface. Photo courtesy of University of Nebraska.
If emergency tillage is to be used in growing crops that are covered by crop insurance, producers should check with their crop insurance providers regarding emergency tillage insurance rules. Emergency tillage does not significantly reduce wheat yields of an established crop. Studies in southwest Kansas and Manhattan demonstrate that the use of a chisel on 40-inch spacing reduced wheat yields by 5.5 bushels per acre on the emergency tillage area, due to direct injury caused by the tillage action. Since the entire field is rarely tilled when performing emergency tillage, the overall yield reduction for the field will be less than 5.5 bushels per acre. In fact, yields in the untilled portion of the field actually can be increased by the use of emergency tillage since that tillage will reduce the amount of damage to wheat caused by wind erosion. The overall reduction in yield for fields that have received emergency tillage has been as little as 1 bushel per acre in the studies mentioned above.
Performing emergency, clod-forming tillage across the field is effective in reducing wind erosion. The degree of success of emergency tillage is highly dependent on climatic, soil, and cover condition. It is often not necessary to till the entire field, but rather, it is very effective to perform emergency tillage passes across 50% of the field (till a pass, leave a pass, repeat). Narrow chisel spacing (20 to 24 inches) is best for this method. Emergency tillage is most effective if there is some subsoil moisture and clod formation.
If 50% of the area has been tilled and wind erosion persists, the omitted strips can be emergency-tilled in a second operation to make result in full-cover tillage. If a second tillage pass is needed, it should be at a greater depth than the first pass. Under some conditions 50% of the field may not need to be tilled, but 20-30% tilled might be effective if there is some residue cover and lower potential for erosion. Wide-chisel spacings are used in the full-field coverage method. The space between chisel grooves can be chiseled later should wind erosion persist.
All tillage operations should be perpendicular or across the direction of the prevailing or eroding wind. For most of Kansas, this means that an east-west direction of tillage is likely best.
The best wind erosion control is created with maximum surface roughness when resistant clods cover a major portion of the surface. Research shows that lower travel speeds of 2 to 3 mph generally produce the largest and most resistant clods. However, speeds of 5 to 7 mph produce the greatest roughness. Because clod resistance is usually reduced at higher speeds, the effect may not be as long-lasting as at lower speeds. Thus, higher speeds are recommended where erosion is already in progress, while lower speeds might be a better choice in anticipation of erosion.
Depth of tillage usually affects clod stability more than travel speed, but optimum depth is highly dependent on soil conditions (such as moisture level) and compaction. Deeper tillage passes can produce more resistant clods than shallow passes.
If the problem is severe and the wheat has already been destroyed or the ground is bare, chisels 4 to 6 inches wide on a 24- to 30-inch spacing will generally provide enough clods to control erosion. Operating depth should be 4 to 6 inches.
Controlling wind erosion on sandy soils
Loose sandy soils require a different tillage approach to effectively control erosion. Clods cannot be formed at the surface that will be sufficiently resistant to erosion on sandy soils. Erosion resistance is achieved through building ridges and furrows in the field to provide adequate protection.
A 14-inch moldboard lister spaced 40 to 50 inches apart (or an 8-inch lister on 20- to 24-inch spacing) is needed to create sufficient surface roughness. The first listing pass should be shallow, not more than about 4 to 5 inches deep. Then, when additional treatment is needed, the depth should become progressively deeper. Alternatively, for the second treatment, the original ridge may be split.
The addition of manure to the ridged surface may also be beneficial in these situations.
Tips for effective emergency tillage
For more information, see K-State Research and Extension publication MF2206, Emergency Wind Erosion Control, at: http://www.ksre.ksu.edu/bookstore/pubs/MF2206.pdf
DeAnn Presley, Soil Management Specialist
John Holman, Cropping Systems Agronomist