Conservation is a good investment, and spring is an excellent time to begin or increase that investment.

With planters coming out of storage, and field scouting for insects, weeds, and other pests not yet a high priority, this is an excellent time to scout and begin planning for conservation practices that could be implemented or installed later this spring or after harvest this fall.

These practices include grassed waterways, field borders, water and sediment control basins, windbreaks, conservation buffers, and/or no-till planting.

Grassed waterways

The tractor cab offers an excellent vantage point to note where channels have developed in the field from the concentration of runoff water. These rills generally develop in the same places each year -- they get filled in by tillage in the spring, redevelop during the growing season, get bounced over by the combine during harvest, and the cycle is repeated the following year. Consider installing grassed waterways in these areas.

As the name indicates, a grassed waterway is a shaped or graded channel that is seeded to grass. This channel forms an area where water can flow down the slope in a controlled manner. Erosion is reduced because the velocity and energy of the flowing water is reduced by the grass stems, and the roots help hold the soil in place. Grassed waterways in a field can substantially lessen the possibility of equipment damage by eliminating runoff-caused gullies.

Grassed field borders

Grassed field borders can provide a convenient location for filling planters, unloading combines into trucks or grain carts, or for turning combines, planters, and other equipment around. Controlling field traffic in this manner can greatly reduce the likelihood of developing a compaction problem within the field. Often field borders can be used to eliminate crop rows that would otherwise be planted up-and-down hill, thus further reducing soil erosion.

Control basins

Water and sediment control basins generally are used where gully erosion is a problem and a grassed waterway cannot be installed or maintained because of large volumes of runoff water. They also are used when runoff and sediment from up-slope areas cannot be managed, and damage to down-slope areas or other practices will occur. Basins must be cleaned periodically to remain effective.


Windbreaks, shelterbelts and living snowfences are similar practices, where rows of trees and shrubs are planted to protect an area from wind and/or blowing snow. Living snowfences are often established along roads or lanes to control drifting snow; whereas windbreaks/shelterbelts are usually planted to protect farmsteads, feedlots and other structures. Windbreaks can be effective in reducing heating costs and improving livestock performance in the winter. They also can provide excellent wildlife habitat.

Conservation buffers

Conservation buffers, such as filter strips and riparian forest buffers, placed along the edges of streams or other water bodies, serve as a last line of defense for sediment and other pollutants that might enter the water. They are very effective at trapping sediment, and enhance the infiltration of runoff water. Buffers also improve safety by keeping equipment away from the edge of the stream. Buffers provide excellent habitat for pheasants, songbirds, and other wildlife. When planted to trees, a buffer can provide income for future generations.


All of the practices mentioned require a commitment of land and the planting of permanent vegetation (grasses, shrubs, trees). No-till planting is a proven conservation practice that often just requires a change in management and some equipment adjustments.

The first step in implementing a no-till system is to make sure that the residue from the harvested crop is uniformly distributed behind the combine. Use a straw spreader or chopper to avoid leaving windrows or piles of residue that can interfere with the planting operation the following spring. A chaff spreader also may be needed for more uniform residue distribution, particularly when harvesting soybeans or small grains with a header more than about 20 feet wide.

Planter adjustments generally include tightening the down-pressure springs, adding extra weight, and making sure the furrow openers are sharp.

Support options

A number of programs, such as the Continuous Conservation Reserve Program, can help landowners with the adoption and maintenance of many conservation practices. Other programs may help with the implementation of a no-till system. Check with your local Natural Resources Conservation Service or Natural Resources District office to determine what programs are available for your land.

SOURCE: Article in Crop Watch by David P. Shelton, University of Nebraska Extension agricultural engineer.