Fragile Fields Face Spring

January 6, 2012 09:26 PM
Fragile Fields Face Spring

Farmers reclaim ground devastated by floodwaters

Rain is about the last thing Eddie Drewes wants to see on his northwest Missouri farm this winter. Any excess moisture, whether from snowmelt or rain showers, between now and planting season will only make his fragile fields more vulnerable to floodwaters from the nearby Missouri River. Broken levees offer little to no protection for his land, three-fourths of which sat covered by water for 105 days in 2011.

Despite the risk of another flood, Drewes prepaid for his corn and soybean seed in December. He is prepared to plant the roughly 3,000 acres he farms with his father, Robert, and brother, David, even though some of the fields are still in rough shape.

"We went in and dug out a lot of fields and worked them this past fall," says Drewes, who farms near Craig, Mo. "Some we also took a dozer to and tried to level up the places where the topsoil was gone."

The Drewes family is not alone in their effort to reclaim farm ground after the devastating flood of 2011.

"Most farmers are not really aggressively doing anything on the river bottom because the levees are still broke," notes Wayne Flanary, a Holt County, Mo., Extension agronomist.

Those who are preparing for spring planting might face a challenging season. Flanary says the flood created four basic problems in farmers’ fields: large sand deposits, standing water, scoured acreage where water washed away the topsoil, and at-risk ground inside the levees where the water can easily return this year and ruin crops.

There is no simple solution, according to John Wilson, Extension educator for the University of Nebraska, based in Tekamah, Neb. Wilson was part of an Extension team that developed a two-part webinar on farming after the flood.

Practical steps. Wilson’s recommendations to farmers vary based on the damage they experienced. For sand and sediment deposits that are less than 2" deep, he suggests incorporating them with typical tillage practices.

"Sand that is 2" to 8" deep should be incorporated with a chisel plow, moldboard plow or another more aggressive tillage equipment. Deeper levels of sand or sediment will need to be physically removed," Wilson says.

Starter fertilizer and fertility testing will also play a valuable role in at-risk fields, Flanary adds.
Wilson encourages farmers to remove debris deposited in fields from buildings or equipment, based on regulations specific to their state.

"Obtain the permits you might need, then burn and bury debris when appropriate," he advises. "Crop residue less than 4" deep can be incorporated with tillage."

Flooded soil syndrome requires a different set of management practices. If feasible, Wilson recommends planting a crop other than corn. If not, he says to band nitrogen and phosphorus at planting.

For highly eroded fields, a cover crop might provide protection for the soil. It also can promote the repopulation of soil microorganisms, which helps plants in nutrient uptake.

In some cases, Wilson says, farmers have fields that are so eroded that tillage alone won’t correct them and they will need to be filled in with sediment and topdressed with native soil.

In severe cases, he adds, some fields will need to be abandoned because the expense of reclaiming them will outweigh the benefits. Wilson says the Conservation Reserve Program and Wetlands Reserve Program will provide some financial support for farmers, but they probably won’t offset the revenue lost from a productive piece of cropland.

One of Drewes’ fields is so pitted and pocked with deep holes that he doesn’t expect to ever farm it again. "We will just have to put a ring levee around it," he notes.

While he knows there is no easy answer to the challenges his family faces, Drewes says he does believe there is a solution: pray the flood of 2011 never happens again.


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