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News Release

Super-Sized Equipment Not Suited for Highly Erodible Ground

Jason Johnson

A northwest Iowa farmer plants up and down the hill on the highly erodible loess hills.DES MOINES, IOWA, Feb. 11, 2014 — Iowa’s soil and water conservation advocates are asking farmers to match machinery size with their conservation needs when farming Iowa’s steep slopes. Large, wide equipment is often difficult to maneuver around many of Iowa’s traditional conservation practices, causing many farmers to reduce or eliminate conservation where it is most needed.

Dr. Mark Hanna, Extension agricultural engineer at Iowa State University, says farmers need to consider what is best long-term for the land they farm. “In sloping areas that benefit from contouring, it is often not practical to use wide equipment used in flatter areas,” he said. “Tighter turns nearer the top of slopes can minimize the capacity effects of equipment that is too wide.”

For decades, Iowa farmers have been planting crops along the contour, instead of up and down slopes, and implementing other erosion control measures on their farms to help reduce the risk of soil erosion and prevent crops from washing away. But, as farmers work more acres and upgrade to larger equipment to improve efficiencies, conservation methods and structures, like grassed waterways and terraces, are all too often perceived as production obstacles rather than necessary tools to protect the environment and long-term sustainability.

Erosion causes soil to degrade over time, which can substantially decrease the soil’s productivity. This stems from reduced topsoil depth, organic matter, and nutrient availability. Unproductive soil can also lead to an increase in inputs, costing the farmer money long-term and increasing the risk of nutrient runoff or leaching.

Use Smaller Planters
LuAnn Rolling, district conservationist with USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in Allamakee County, says that although 24- to 48-row planters may be useful in central Iowa or other flat areas across Iowa, they don’t make as much sense in areas like northeast Iowa.

Rolling believes that a 12- or 16-row planter on steeper slopes is the maximum ─ with many slopes even too steep for these to help maintain conservation practices. “It takes about 60 feet to turn big equipment,” she said. “Grassed headlands (field borders) are now either gone or there is just a narrow strip of grass with 24 or 48 rows up and down the hill beside them.”

For more information about the benefits of conservation, visit your local NRCS office located at the USDA Service Center in your county.


Why are conservation practices important?
Since the Dust Bowl in the 1930s, farmers have been implementing conservation on their land to reduce soil erosion. Since then, many soil conservation practices have shown to improve soil health, which stabilizes the soil and aid in production. Conservation practices also improve water and air quality, promote biological diversity, and help attract wildlife.

Farmers using large equipment often struggle to navigate these conservation practices on hilly ground:

  • Contouring is preparing the soil, planting and cultivating crops around a hill rather than up down the hill. Crop rows run around the slope, nearly level. The rows form small dams to slow runoff.
  • Terraces reduce erosion by intercepting runoff on slopes, transforming a hillside into a series of shorter slopes.
  • Grassed waterways reduce gully erosion using grass channels to convey water to a stable outlet at a non-erosive velocity.
  • Field borders are bands of vegetation around perimeter of a field that provide a turning area for farm equipment. They eliminate the planting of end rows up and down hills.

To learn more about standards for these and other conservation practices, visit the Iowa NRCS website at and click on “Iowa Conservation Practice Standards.”