Knowing Your Roots

Blog 14

We are finally experiencing a sure sign of spring – south east winds.  It might be welcome to many, but it can be a big problem for Central Sands vegetable growers. Wind can move small grains of sand from bare soil. In some places this may not cause problems but it cannot be tolerated in the Central Sands of Wisconsin where farmers spend lifetimes building the soil to the structure and health needed to grow quality vegetables. How can farmers prevent soil erosion?

Protecting soils from wind erosion takes a systems approach. After harvest farmers protect their fields by planting a cover crop.  Usually we plant a type of grass or deep-rooted crop so that the field is not left bare and vulnerable to wind. Many times rye is planted because it will germinate in the fall and continue to grow the following spring, extending time to our coverage. In general, the Central Sands landscape is very vulnerable to soil erosion, because the land is flat.  Even a small fraction of topsoil lost due to the wind can equate to tons of soil loss if fields are left unprotected.  Cover crops serve to hold precious topsoil in place and limit soil loss, but they also do so much more! Cover crops also provide and enhance beneficial organisms in the topsoil by providing stable micro-habitats. They also limit nutrient and water losses on fields by capturing unused nutrients like nitrogen from previous crops, thereby reducing leaching potential. In addition, they build soil health by adding beneficial organic residue and sequestering carbon. Cover crops are not grown to generate a profit but to protect the precious soil resources on the farm.   

Another approach used by farmers is to add texture to the flat land surface, to disrupt the wind, by planting windbreak systems.  These systems create wind blocks at the perimeter or at other calculated locations in fields.  The most effective windbreaks include several species of shrubs and trees to provide habitat diversity to enhance pollinator, songbird and other wildlife populations.  These windbreaks effectively block winds at differing heights slowing down the wind. Windbreaks represent a significant investment by grower. Since they are very effective in limiting soil loss, they are well worth the cost!

The Central Wisconsin Windshed Partnership group is a collaborative effort between the industry, local counties, the State and the University of Wisconsin.  The group states, “properly planted and maintained windbreaks can limit soil losses and over time and can be very effective in maintaining the production viability of the region.”  During the past 20 years, hundreds of miles of new windbreaks have been planted by the Windshed Partnership. One goal of the group is to plant and install 15.5 new miles of windbreaks per year. These plantings have resulted in thousands of acres of cropland being protected.

The wind may seem like a nuisance to most of us, but to farmers in Central Wisconsin, it is far from simple. Being the stewards of the land, we work hard and invest heavily to keep the soil in place, to ensure conservation on and around farms, building soil quality for generations to come.

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