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Disappearing dirt can erode profitability

When it rains, it pours—quickly. That’s how precipitation patterns have been developing over the past several years in MFA’s trade territo­ry. We seem to get more brief, large rain events than the long, soaking rains farmers prefer. And that per­ception is backed by data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which has weather stations throughout Missouri.

Between 1895-2019, the state’s average number of rainfall events over 3 inches was 17.2 days. From the period of 2008 to 2019, nine years were above the historical annual average. Since NOAA began keeping records in 1895, the five highest years had a multitude of days with rainfall events over 3 inches, four of which were record­ed during the last 12 years. In fact, 2008 was the highest year of pre­cipitation ever recorded in Missouri with 50 days that had 3-plus inches of rain.

As producers strive to make a profit on every acre, they may try to farm as close as possible to creeks and rivers or remove trees and vegetation along the banks to gain more crop ground. The problem with these practices is that remov­ing permanent vegetation in these riparian corridors also removes stability of the soil, increasing the chance of erosion because the banks are not armored and protect­ed by deep-rooted vegetation.

Most years we do not realize that banks of rivers, streams and creeks are slowly widening and our field edges are gradually disappear­ing into the flow of water. When short-duration, flash-flooding events wash away several feet of field edges with each storm, it becomes obvious. However, that erosion has been happening for a while with every rain event, just at smaller, unnoticeable amounts.

It is hard to put a value on this lost acreage, but it’s safe to say that none of us would like the loss of production that typically those fertile river bottoms provide. How much production goes down the river each year? How many bales or bushels do you lose because the streambanks keep eroding?

Fortunately, there are several ways producers can slow or stop bank-side erosion. It might be as simple as adopting no-till practices or incorporating a cover crop so there are growing roots all year. It may mean a change in grazing management to increase residual forage heights, which, in turn, will increase root mass.

Most times though, curbing erosion along rivers, streams and creeks usually includes creating a natural buffer extending away from the bank. In some less-severe situ­ations, you can do this by farming farther away from the water’s edge and allowing Mother Nature to reclaim this land by herself. You can also speed up the process by planting trees and shrubs to create that buffer. Typically, a 50-foot buffer is a minimum to create good riparian habitat that will slow down and stop the erosion but, in some cases, it may need to be wider.

In more severe cases, after that buffer has been established, heavy equipment may be needed to place large rocks along the riverbank or divert the stream channel to slow the erosion until the riparian buffer can become established. Each situa­tion is different and can be complex.

There are professionals in both private and public sectors across the state who are very knowledgeable on how to protect these riparian areas and know what it will require to slow down and stop the erosion. MFA has two conservation special­ists, Adam Jones and myself, who can assist producers with stream­bank erosion issues. Also, the Natu­ral Resources Conservation Service, Department of Natural Resources and Missouri Department of Con­servation have staff who can assist producers. These organizations typically have financial assistance available to help with some of the costs of establishing their recom­mended solutions to widen riparian corridors.

Often, we think about the short-term effects of our current manage­ment decisions, but when it comes to streambank stabilization, we have to think long term. If you were to do nothing about the erosion occurring along the rivers, streams and creeks on your land, just imagine what would it would look like when your kids or grandkids take over your operation. Now, take action to improve that future.

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