Factors in wind erosion potential on sparsely covered soil

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Wind erosion rates are often at their highest during the winter and early spring months, primarily November through April. Severe episodes of blowing soil have already occurred in parts of western Kansas, the most recent episode having occurred on Jan. 16.

When vegetation is insufficient, ridges and large soil clods (or aggregates) are frequently the only means of controlling erosion on large areas. Roughening the land surface with ridges and clods reduces the wind velocity and traps drifting soils. A cloddy soil surface will absorb more wind energy than a flat, smooth surface. Better yet, a soil surface that is both ridged and cloddy will absorb even more wind energy and be even more effective in reducing the potential for wind erosion.

Soil crusts and frozen ground also can increase resistance of the surface soil to wind forces, but this effect is only temporary and should not be relied on for erosion control.

Crosswind ridges

Crosswind ridges are formed by tilling or planting across the prevailing wind erosion direction. If erosive winds show no seasonal or annual prevailing direction, this practice has limited protective value. In Kansas, the prevailing winds in the winter are from the north, and in early spring the prevailing winds are from the south. Crosswind ridges at this time of year, therefore, should be in an east-west direction to protect from both northerly and southerly winds.

Tillage implements can form ridges and depressions that alter wind velocity. The depressions also trap saltating soil particles and stop avalanching of eroding material downwind.

However, soil ridges protrude higher into the turbulent wind layer and are subject to greater wind forces. Therefore, it is important that cloddiness on top on the ridge is sufficient to withstand the added wind force, otherwise they will quickly erode, and the beneficial effects will be lost. Ridging sandy soils, for example, is of little value because the ridges of sand are erodible and soon leveled by the wind.

Soil aggregates and “cloddiness”

Clod-forming tillage produces aggregates or clods that are large enough to resist the wind force and trap smaller moving particles. They are also stable enough to resist breakdown by abrasion throughout the wind erosion season.

If clods are large and stable enough, as smaller particles are removed or trapped, the surface becomes stable or “armored” against erosive action. The duration of protection depends on the resistance of the clods to abrasion or changes in the wind direction.

Of the factors that affect the size and stability of soil aggregates, most notable is soil texture. Sandy or coarse-textured soils lack sufficient amounts of silt and clay to bind particles together to form aggregates. Such soils form a single-grain structure or weakly cemented clods, a condition that is quite susceptible to erosion by wind. Loams, silt loams, and clay loams tend to consolidate and form stable aggregates that are more resistant to erosive winds. Clays and silty clays are subject to fine granulation and more subject to erosion.

Many other factors also affect aggregate consolidation and stability — climate, including moisture; compaction; organic matter; lime; microorganism activity; and other cementing materials.

Any process that reduces soil consolidation also increases erodibility. The persistence of aggregates is greatly affected by the climatic process of wetting and drying, freezing and thawing, or freeze-drying, which generally disintegrates clods and increases erodibility.

Mechanical action, such as tillage, animal or machine traffic, and abrasion by saltating soil particles also can affect cloddiness. Tillage may either increase or decrease clods at the surface, depending on the soil condition in the tilled layer and the type and speed of the implement. Repeated tillage usually pulverizes and smooths dry soils and increases their erodibility, especially if done with implements that have an intensive mechanical action, such as tandem disks, offset disks, or harrows.

Soil water at the time of tillage also has a decided effect on cloddiness. Research has found that different soils have differing water contents at which soil pulverization is most severe. If the soil is extremely dry or extremely moist, smaller clods are produced than at intermediate water contents.

DeAnn Presley, Soil Management Specialist

John Tatarko, Soil Scientist, USDA-ARS