How Conservation Can Ready Soils for Planting After Tough Weather

No-till and other conservations practices could enable planting after excessively wet seasons. ( Darrell Smith )

America’s Conservation Ag Movement is a broad national effort to help farmers, ranchers and growers continue their journey to conserve our shared natural resources and promote sustainable food production.


On his Ethan, South Dakota farm, Matt Bainbridge planted just 15% of his acres in 2019—the rest were swallowed up by prevent plant. That’s the most prevent plant acres he’s ever had, and it turned all his careful pre-season planning upside down.

For the 2019 planting season, farmers in the Midwest were no stranger to the crippling impacts of heavy rainfall, flooding and unseasonable temperatures on crop yields. May 2018 to April 2019 was the wettest 12-month period ever recorded in United States history, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Estimates from the American Farm Bureau Federation find there were 20 million acres of prevent plant across the U.S. in that same time.

South Dakota was at the epicenter of the record-breaking planting season, bearing the brunt of the devastating spring weather with 2.9 million corn acres and 867,000 soybean acres of prevent plant. For Bainbridge, the season brought immense challenges he worked to overcome.

“Our production plan changed so many times during the season it was almost hard to remember the original plan,” Bainbridge said. “The chemical plan was completely changed to try managing very big weeds by the time we could spray.”

Due east and across the Mississippi River, Dan Erickson was combatting similar issues when planting corn in Altona, Ill. Though planting was extremely late, Erickson was fortunate to not have had any prevented plant acres. 

“Our main problem was with saturated soil, and the cooler temperatures made this an issue,” Erickson said. “We had very poor stands in the early planted corn and ended up replanting about 20%.”

While South Dakota led the nation with the most prevented plant acres, Illinois was severely reduced with 1.5 million acres lost to the unseasonable weather. For Erickson, challenges during planting season carried into harvest and even today threatens outcomes for the spring 2020 planting season.

“Harvesting was finished so late that we didn’t really get any field work done to eliminate any compaction problems we created during the spring,” Erickson said.

Conservation Readies Soil for 2020

For both Erickson and Bainbridge, conservation practices have offered solutions for the challenges of 2019 and hope for 2020.

“We were able to plant most of our acres to cover crops,” Bainbridge said. “We ran the air seeder every month from April to October trying to grow anything to cover the soil and use some moisture.”

Cover crops helped him reduce weed pressure in addition to diminishing soil erosion from wind and rainfall. In addition, cover crops protect fields from fallow field syndrome, which can have damaging effects on microbe populations in the soil.

Conservation practices - ranging from cover cropping to no-till - are offering farmers significant monetary savings.

“With evidence we have, the no-till system can not only increase productivity and profit in a sustainable manner but is useful to repair damages caused by the past,” says Roberto Peiretti, founder of the Argentinian no-till farmers association and co-founder of Bioceres. “The ability [of this system] is beyond just sustainability.”

A report headed by the Iowa Soybean Association found adopting no-till and strip-till creates savings of $10 to $88 per acre compared to regular tillage. Expenses attributed to pesticide inputs were also much lower for farmers using no-till. If half of Iowa’s regularly tilled acres switched to no-till or strip-till it would save farmers $265 in equipment and fuel costs.

Bainbridge and his family have been using no-till conservation practices for 30 years. For Erickson, holding off on spring tillage has allowed his soils to drain better.

“We have to improve the capturing efficiency of rainfall,” Peiretti says. “With no-till, water runoff is much less in no-till and infiltration is higher.”

In a year such as 2019, better infiltration was the difference for many in planting or taking prevent plant. While you can’t beat Mother Nature, you might be able to hedge your bets in the future through sustainable practices.


This story was written by Madeline McGarry, one of the Sonja Hillgren Memorial Scholarship winners. The experiential scholarship program honors the late Sonja Hillgren, award-winning journalist, former editor of Farm Journal and former president of the National Press Club.  Learn more about Madeline and other scholarship winners here. 

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