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News Release

The REAL Cost of Soil Erosion

Joanna Pope
(402) 437-4123

Do you know what ‘menace’ Nebraska farmers are still battling?  Soil erosion.  Even after widespread adoption of no-till and other modern farming methods, soil erosion is still a big problem in many areas.

Hugh Hammond Bennett was the first Chief of the USDA Soil Conservation Service (now called the Natural Resources Conservation Service or NRCS). He is widely known as the “Father of Soil Conservation,” and is credited with creating a strong public interest in reducing the problem of soil erosion back in the 1930s. 

Erosion happens when soil is not adequately covered to protect it from water and wind.  When uncovered soil particles become detached and are washed or blown away, soil health declines, and other resources are negatively impacted such as water and air quality.  Bennett observed how soil erosion reduced the ability of land to sustain agricultural productivity, and that is still a problem for many producers today.

Farmers in south central Nebraska saw first-hand the results of soil erosion after heavy rain storms this spring.  On May 6, a storm dumped up to 10 inches of rain in a single event in a 10-county band from Hastings to Nebraska City.  Heavy rain caused severe soil erosion and flooding throughout the area, especially around Hebron in Thayer County. But not all fields were impacted the same.

Aaron Hird, NRCS Resource Conservationist in Hebron reported that fields where the soil had been tilled showed visible signs of excessive soil erosion.  In contrast, fields with high amounts of crop residue or cover crops and no tillage had noticeably less erosion or no visible erosion at all.

So what’s being done to help farmers combat the impact of soil erosion? With the help of NRCS and other conservation partners; quite a lot.

NRCS has been in the soil saving business for over 80 years. In 1935, Congress created the USDA Soil Conservation Service to address the national Dust Bowl crisis stating, "the wastage of soil and moisture resources on farm, grazing, and forest lands . . .  is a menace to the national welfare."

Since then, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (as we’re now called) has continued to provide voluntary conservation assistance to farmers and ranchers who want to improve natural resources on their land. 

We’ve been making tons of progress – literally. The NRCS Conservation Effects Assessment Report from 2012 shows that farmers have reduced soil loss through the adoption of conservation practices by as much as 5 tons per acre.

While soil erosion in much of the Midwest region has decreased, the cost of soil loss is still very significant.  An NRCS report of their Environmental Quality Incentive Program from 2002 and 2010 indicated that each ton of soil eroded contains the equivalent of 2.32 pounds of nitrogen and 1 pound of phosphorus.  The cost per pound for nitrogen and phosphorus were 0.63 and 0.64 respectively.  Mike Duffy, Extension Economist with Iowa State University, published “Value of Soil Erosion to the Landowner” in 2012 that suggested the real cost to the farmer based on those estimates was a loss of fertilizer at $2.10 per ton of soil loss per acre. 

To illustrate a point about the substantial costs associated with soil erosion, let’s look at the May 6 storm in Thayer County.  According to the USDA Census of Agriculture, Thayer County has approximately 326,000 acres of cropland.  If we assume that half of the cropland in Thayer County was impacted by the heavy rainfall, (160,000 +/- acres) and that the average soil loss was 2 tons per acre, the total soil loss would be 320,000 tons.   At a cost of $2.10 per ton for nitrogen and phosphorus alone, the estimated loss from the May 6 storm would be $672,000.  Assuming a similar loss in the 10-county storm-impacted area, the estimated loss would be $6,720,000 - and that doesn’t even consider the costs of seed and fuel and the time required to replant some of those acres.

The ‘real’ cost of soil erosion goes beyond just the cost of lost fertilizer.  The additional costs associated with soil erosion include loss in crop production; loss of land value from long-term excessive erosion; damage to real property, roads, bridges and other infrastructure; and environmental damages to streams, rivers and lakes. 

To help combat the economic and environmental impacts of soil erosion, NRCS is available to help farmers and ranchers apply effective soil conservation practices such as contour farming, terraces and grassed waterways. NRCS programs are voluntary and offered free of charge. Financial assistance is available through NRCS conservation programs to help farmers install soil saving conservation practices like planting cover crops.  

NRCS has identified four key principles to healthy soil: 1) keep soil covered, 2) disturb soil less, 3) feed soil with living plants as much as possible, and 4) increase plant diversity.  Following these principles will reduce soil degradation, improve soil productivity, and increase soil resilience to extreme weather.

These soil health principles are in line with what Hugh Hammond Bennett believed. He said, “Everything we do, all we share, even whatever we amount to as a great enduring people, begins and rest on the sustained productivity of our agricultural land.”

To learn how you can help sustain the productivity of your agricultural land by protecting one of its most valuable assess – its soil – visit your local USDA Service Center. Conservation professionals can work with you to develop a conservation plan custom-made for your farming operation.