Union County ag extension agent Rankin Powell believes in no-till and other soil conservation practices, such as this grade stabilization structure along a creek.

Soil Savers

In the 1930s, dust storms rolled across the southern Great Plains and much of the eastern United States due to consecutive years of drought and inappropriate farming practices.

By Katie Pratt
Photography by Matt Barton

The Gleaner in Henderson reported on April 12, 1935, “the effect of the storm could be told plainly on clothing, buildings, and automobiles, and the inhaling of the dust was almost stifling.” By mid-decade, approximately 100 million acres of the country’s cropland had lost most or all of its topsoil to erosion. Fast forward to 2012. Much of the United States, including Kentucky, was faced with a drought that rivaled the droughts of the 1930s. In June 2012, the state received 0.88 inches of rain, comparable to June 1936, when the state received 0.79 inches. The drought dealt a severe blow to crops and livestock. Once again, the southern Great Plains was hard hit. This time, however, no massive dust storms blew into Kentucky from the parched region. Farmers across the country, supported by federal regulations and academic research and outreach, have implemented modern conservation practices that hold the soil and minimize erosion.

(l-r) Jonathan and Randy Hagan's extensive no-till practice has led to increased yields and better soil.

Wonder grass

While most of the dust from the 1930s is attributed to the southern Great Plains, Kentucky had its fair share of erosion issues. Huge gullies formed in fields and made all parts of crop production more difficult.

“During the Dust Bowl, the Jackson Purchase area of Western Kentucky was about to wash away because of soil erosion,” said Ken Wells, a retired UK soils specialist. “This area, along with western Tennessee, eastern Arkansas, and Missouri, has a silty loess soil that is very easily windblown.”

About that time, UK College of Agriculture agronomist E.N. Fergus discovered what he called “wonder grass” preventing erosion on a hillside on a Menifee County farm. The “wonder grass” was tall fescue. Fergus obtained seeds from the farm and began experimenting with the grass. The trials continued until 1939, when UK’s W. C. Johnstone began distributing the grass to farmers for on-farm trials. In 1942, the College released KY-31 tall fescue to farmers, and it was readily adopted in Kentucky and neighboring states.

While KY-31 tall fescue would have its shortcomings, it kept the soil in the Tennessee and Ohio valleys in place, Wells said.

No-till, no loss

KY-31, though good at controlling erosion, still wasn’t a silver bullet. Farmers continued to cultivate cropland, and their tilling of the soil created conditions favorable for erosion.

In 1962, Christian County farmer Harry Young Jr., ’41, planted what’s believed to be the first successful no-till grain crop in the nation—0.7 acres of corn. Shortly thereafter he began working with UK field crops specialist Shirley Phillips, ’48, to advance the no-till movement. Despite its success, no-till was not readily adopted statewide for some time.

“When I first got here (to Western Kentucky), erosion was a huge problem,” said Lloyd Murdock, who’s been a UK extension soils specialist since 1969. “Some of the bays in Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley were difficult to navigate with boats in places, because they were filling up with soil. Ditches along the road would fill up with soil and spill over onto the road. Road crews would have to clean the ditches and some of the road during rainy springs. Ditches in fields would sometimes get several feet deep where the soil had eroded during the worst times. Much of this land is woodlands now, because it can’t be farmed.”

Throughout his career, Murdock has advocated for no-till crop production. He conducted several fertility studies to show farmers that they can maintain their yields using no-till methods. Other studies involved stand establishment, nitrogen management, and water holding capacity. He also worked with personnel from the Natural Resources Conservation Service on researching many aspects of no-tillage.

As the advantages of no-till became apparent, many farmers readily accepted and implemented the practice. Some corn farmers, though, abandoned the practice due to problems with Johnsongrass and returned to no-till only after glyphosate herbicides, which provide control against Johnsongrass, became less expensive. No-till acreage increased further when the 1985 farm bill tied conservation tillage to government payments.

“They (farmers) knew they weren’t being good stewards to the land, and the land was the most precious thing to them,” Murdock said. “They wanted to do a better job, but they didn’t know if they could make a living doing it because of the problems with no-tillage.”

Today, Murdock said about 70 percent of the state’s wheat acreage, 50 percent of the corn acreage, and 80 percent of soybean acreage is no-till.

“No-tillage is one of the top five agricultural advances in the last century,” Murdock said. “Kentucky was at the epicenter for the birth of no-tillage.”

Conserving for the future

As a UK graduate student, Rankin Powell, ’64, Union County agriculture and natural resources extension agent, worked with agronomist Tim Taylor and agricultural engineer Ed Smith on the first no-till pasture drill for alfalfa and clover. He also worked with Phillips to plant the first no-till corn crop on UK’s research farm.

After graduation, he worked as a county extension agent for several years, farmed full-time for 20 years, and then returned to Extension as an agent. Throughout his life, he’s used and advocated no-till. Just ask Union County farmer Randy Hagan. Hagan’s operation is 100 percent no-till on rolling ground and 60 to 75 percent no-till on bottomland because of what he saw on Powell’s farm.

“I saw the benefits of what he’d been doing for years,” Hagan said. “We’ve seen an increase in the quality of the soils and yields in our operation. My costs for equipment, fuel, labor, and lost production time are down.”
Land preservation and conservation are very important to Hagan who, along with his son Jonathan, farms the land his family has owned since the 1950s.

Hagan has worked with Powell and Lester Carrithers, who’s retired from the NRCS, to increase his no-till production and install other conservation practices including waterways, terraces, cattle panels, and gully plugs as needed.

Jonathan Hagan said he’ll continue to no-till the land and install other conservation practices including precision agriculture technologies, because he hopes his children will one day inherit the farm.

Mud = Erosion

Even though management practices are far better than they were 75 years ago, they haven't completely stopped erosion. Steve Higgins, ’87, ’95, ’04, the College’s director of animal and environmental compliance, demonstrates ways to limit erosion by decreasing mud on the farm.

“When an animal is standing, it applies a certain amount of pressure to a surface,” he said. “The foot pressure of standing cattle and horses applies about 66 percent more pressure to the surface than a 50-ton dozer, and the pressure increases when they’re moving.”

Many times, foot pressure from livestock is too much for the soil and it fails, creating mud. To show farmers how they can reduce mud on their farm, Higgins installed various hardened surfaces and other best management practices in livestock areas of UK’s Spindletop Research Farm.

“Farmers are losing money by creating mud,” he said. “Livestock that have to walk through mud require more feed for energy but actually eat less because walking in mud requires more effort.”

Steve Higgins is not a fan of mud, so he has installed various hardened surfaces and other best management practices in livestock areas of the College's Spindletop Farm.

Livestock with muddy feet wading in a stream or pond can have negative health implications for livestock and humans. Higgins has led an effort on UK’s farms to fence off livestock from streams, install gravity flow tanks in pastures as alternative water sources, and build stream crossings to give livestock access to pastures on both sides while limiting their access to the stream.

Higgins said farmers can get cost-share dollars for many of these environmentally friendly improvements. His projects were funded through grants from the Kentucky Division of Water and Division of Conservation.

“Implementing these practices may not cost a lot of money because of cost-share dollars, and it will improve your livestock productivity and your life,” he said.

Additionally, Higgins has planted more than 6,000 trees along the stream that runs through UK’s Maine Chance Farm as part of a Conservation Reserve Program to control erosion and filter runoff.

“Most practices take time and adaptive management,” he said. “It requires a conscious effort.”

In 2050, the world is expected to need almost twice as much food and energy, with virtually no increase in water and cropland. That will require not only more intensive farming practices, but also new and even more intensive conservation practices. Agricultural producers and practices have come a long way since the Dust Bowl storms blew in to Henderson, but meeting the challenges of sustaining precious soil and water resources will be just as critical in the future. College of Agriculture specialists, researchers, and extension agents will continue to work hand-in-hand with farmers to develop and implement best management practices to sustain their natural resources, their families, and the world.