Survey reveals ‘amazing’ soil loss in Great Plains region

MINOT, N.D. — Nearly every farmer has seen the photos from the 1930s, in which a massive dust storm is about to strike a small town or a drift of soil is almost covering a house.

What North American farmers may not know is that soil in the air or in a drift contains more than just particles of dirt.

It also contains a massive amount of nutrients.

Dave Franzen, a soil scientist with North Dakota State University, has spent several years reviewing soil survey records for the state. What he found was startling and troubling: an incredible amount of nitrogen and phosphate has blown or washed away over the last 75 to 125 years because topsoil loss equals nutrient loss.

“Topsoil contains a (lot) of phosphate and we lost an additional six inches (15 centimetres) of topsoil from 20 million crop acres since 1940. I think that’s conservative,” said Franzen, who spoke at the Northern Prairies Ag Innovation Alliance (NPAIA) conference held Jan. 10-11 in Minot.

“We would have lost an additional 12.5 million tons of phosphate and 40 million tons of nitrogen. That is the equivalent of 75 years of N and P application at present rates.”

Franzen presented the topsoil loss estimates at the Minot conference to remind farmers why zero tillage is critical for sustainable crop production.

He was likely speaking to the converted because the NPAIA was formerly known as the Manitoba-North Dakota Zero Tillage Farmers Association.

Franzen didn’t look at historical soil surveys for Saskatchewan, but it’s possible that Western Canada has lost similar amounts of topsoil.

“I can’t imagine that it didn’t happen there, too,” he said. “If you look at the old soil record, and I would challenge somebody to do that, then look at what’s left there today. I think you would see a big difference.”

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He did look at soil surveys for Divide County in the northwestern corner of the state, immediately south of Estevan, Sask.

According to soil records for the county:

  • Surveyors in 1900 found 40 cm of very black topsoil in the county.
  • As of 2017, the area had no black topsoil. It has light gray topsoil.
  • Franzen estimated the loss of topsoil at 30 cm.

He discovered comparable losses in other parts of North Dakota.

“I was completely shocked. I knew we lost some soil across the state, but I didn’t think it was all that much,” he said.

“When I started to look at it and realizing how much it was and how (many) nutrients were in it, it was just amazing.”

The NPAIA conference also featured a demonstration of wind erosion.

Chris Augustin, an NDSU extension agent and soil health specialist, hooked up a leaf blower and used a tray of soil to simulate how much soil can be blown off a field in a short period of time.

“When we have these open winters, we see a lot of sediment sitting in the ditches,” he said.

“With a loamy soil, an 80 acre field under conventionally tilled soybeans, the erosion would be somewhere around 25 to 30 tons per year. Five tons would be somewhere around the thickness of a dime.”

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Franzen showed modern day photos of soil accumulating in a ditch next to a field. He said the amount in the ditch is a fraction of the total loss because most of it would have blown for tens or hundreds of kilometres.

“Every time you see that (soil in the ditch), multiply it by about 10.”

Franzen’s historical numbers for soil loss are estimates, but Augustin thinks the figures are low.

“I honestly think he’s being pretty conservative,” he said.

“We’ve degraded our soils. With adoption of no till, minimal till, cover crops … we’re starting to swing that pendulum.”

Growers in Manitoba’s Red River Valley and other parts of the Prairies with heavier soil often say zero tillage is impossible in their region.

Franzen has heard the same argument in North Dakota, but he doesn’t buy it.

“I don’t hammer them on the head and tell them, ‘you’re wrong, you’re wrong,’ but there are people that have been successful … even through these wet years at making it work,” he said. “It’s mostly a fear. We have examples of success.”

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  • ed

    No kidding, and this is news to who…..

  • Happy Farmer

    It seems obvious that farmers have been working hard at conserving soil so as to not repeat the “Dirty 30s”. Zero-till is one of the ways they have been doing it. Of course, it may not work for everyone, but it is still an excellent management tool against erosion.

    • Harold

      The “dirty 30’s” was a 10 year period when a drought hit a large area of Canada and the USA. It started during the massive “sod busting” days where the prairie grasses which could hold soil and withstand drought were indiscriminately removed in favor of farm crop. During the drought, and the soil exposed, the wind created massive dust clouds never seen before, removing the top soils in a large portion of Canada and the USA. Coined the “dust bowl”. Unemployment skyrocketed. It was dirty, and a multitude now poor. Even though there were a few good seasons of rain amid the 10 year depression, it wasn’t enough for the farms to recover until the 10 years had expired. Was this a lesson learned?
      Are we prepared for another drought, and if it were to happen again, what other than dirt, would be in the air of a dust cloud, when compared to the black dirt of 1930? Water-way’s are not off limits to a dust cloud.
      The Dirty 30’s were not an “act of god”, they were our act of punishing ourselves.

      • John Fefchak

        Thanks Harold….It is good to be reminded of those years, as many to-day are TOO young to Know and realize the dust bowl years.

        • Harold

          I left out the minder of the human suffering part, such as box car travel danger, death, killing, disease, starvation, etc, which was the rest of the story.

  • Denise

    And when pesticides are sprayed on the crops and insecticide-coated seeds are sown, these poisons kill most of the living organisms and microbes ,in the soil, which enrichen it and help bind it together.
    Fibrous filaments are also a very necessary part of healthy soil but pesticides ,like Roundup, destroy that important element,too.
    Killing all the micro-organisms turns healthy productive soil into lifeless dirt. This makes it more exposed to the forces of nature like wind, drought and flooding. Erosion takes place easier and faster.
    Any good farmer knows this. However,many farmers have been propagandized into believing they can’t grow a decent crop, without an abundance of chemicals and pesticides. But the first and most necessary element in growing a good,nutrient-rich crop is healthy and plentiful top soil.
    It’s hard to grow any crops in a thin layer of inert dirt .

    • richard

      Actually its not that hard to grow crops on “inert dirt”…..The soil becomes nothing more than the “medium” to support roots, as in hydroponics…. Unfortunately the “system” is devoid of resilience and becomes totally dependent on external chemistry to sustain it…. which of course is part of the dependence by design in industrial agriculture….. The resilience of ecological agriculture is a function of maximizing bio diversity in the system rather than subtracting it…… internal optimization versus external dependence….. A forage legume as little as one year in a four year rotation has proven this….all over the planet…..

      • Harold

        I buy produce on-site at a Hydroponic greenhouse, and I can assure you that their “inert water” is “treated” to support plant growth and nutrition.
        Hydroponic is not an accurate comparison to “inert soil”.

      • Jim Martindale

        You would really love the legume living mulch system revealed on http://www.soilcursebuster.com . It works but only with the benefits of appropriate tillage that leaves roots in place while facilitating air and water exchange. We are using a mowing machine today instead of a chemical for suppression of the living legume.

    • neil

      Although I don’t agree with most of your statements I do agree that the first and most important element of growing a crop is a healthy bio diverse soil. Maybe 50-100 years from now your other statements will prove true but as of today they are not supported in the field.

      • Denise

        I”ll give you that it is possible to grow crops in deceased soil, short term, with lots of moisture and chemicals. Long term, though,we need healthy soil. It is disappearing at an alarming rate (fact). Why is this?
        I don’t claim to have the answers but when common sense prevails one has to wonder what happens to chemically damaged soil when there are major precipitation or wind events? I don’t think we don’t have to be soil scientists to figure out which soil erodes easiest.
        http://www.lancasterfarming.com/farming/soil/carbon-at-crux-of-soil-health/article_595e9c5a-a7ea-5e4c-82cc-259f12568516.html

        • neil

          I agree that top soil is disappearing at an alarming rate. I also agree that a soil with diverse living microorganisms is more productive, more stable to resist erosion. Maybe we are chemically hurting our soil’s biology with our modern farming techniques. I don’t have all the answers either. I do think we are not helping the soil with only growing annual crops. I believe to have better soil we need to have perennial forages in our rotation. I think this will help the diversity and population of beneficial microorganisms.

    • Jim Martindale

      And much to our chagrin, if we face facts, no till has created the need for the chemicals and the results that you so ably describe. You would be very encouraged by a visit to http://www.soilcursebuster.com to see how air and water management thru tillage has proven over a 30 year span effective at creating soil health and resistance to erosion and incredible plant health requiring no chemical intervention.

  • I have read that humates are a great way to improve soil structure and get soils back to their natural balance. All full of bugs, microbes, fungus, and the other good stuff.

    • Jim Martindale

      You can produce your own by putting the ingredients together in your field. Air and water exchange and root systems (the bigger the better ). Not that difficult but no till fails at both counts. Count the sloughs and check the rate increase or decrease and examine your roots to know what your score is for humic acid production potential.

  • Denise

    When soil is in a proper balance, it contains:
    -nematodes
    -bacteria
    -earthworms
    -fungi
    -protozea
    -organisms
    -micro-organisms
    -disease inhibitors
    Information by Dr. Elaine Ingham

    • Happy Farmer

      In recent years I have seen a big increase in earthworms in my soils. Ive been told that a bigger presence of earthworms means there are also a lot of other items as mentioned by Denise. I have also been able to reduce some insecticide and fungicide use.

      I guess modern conventional farming is a good system for the soil.

      • ed

        The soil loss is high and will continue, so is it good or bad. Much of North America’s soil has run out to the mouth of multiple rivers and is in the bottom of the sea now as shown on satellite images, so it is not looking like anything to cheer about just yet as highlighted in this piece.

      • Jim Martindale

        When you examine your earthworms be sure to seperate the group into various sizes in the early summer. That’s when you will discover how many survived the winter and spring. Most no tillers take confidence from the number of large worms that they find. Conversely i take heart when i find a large number of all sizes. Then i know the hatch has not died young usually from drowning which is usually the vase in no till fields.

        • Happy Farmer

          I will most definitely look at my earthworms early this coming summer.

          Still, it does not tell me why I have more earthworms now under zero till(with chemicals) than I did under conventional tillage(also with chemicals).

          I take your drainage and drowning issues with a “grain of salt”. It could be due to my geographical area, less total rain, less deluges of rain, or even zero till, but I certainly have noticed less drainage problems and drowning issues in recent years. I also have soil test results to confirm my organic matter amounts have increased under zero till by 2-4%. This is also an indicator that my soil is becoming more healthy.

          I have seen the soil cursebuster video, and came to an easy conclusion that it will never work on my land. (Sorry the reasons elude me right now, I just remember my conclusion from watching the video about a year ago).

    • Jim Martindale

      And all of these critters have to breathe. When they are sitting in water when it rains because it won’t perk, the anaerobic conditions rapidly change the environment to swamp favorites. Welcome to the world of methane production and pathogen dominance. http://Www.soilcursebuster.com presents a simple solution.