SWCD’s rain simulator an eye-opener for soil conservation practices

SWCD’s rain simulator an eye-opener for soil conservation practices

Image Credit: Dave Mast

Rain was falling heavily Tuesday, Sept. 7 in Millersburg, but it was relegated to a very tiny spot.

Holmes Soil & Water Conservation District conservationist John Lorson gave a presentation that featured a rainfall simulator that poured out the equivalent of 1 inch of rain over a one-hour span. It was a big day for Holmes SWCD with Ohio Department of Agriculture director Dorothy Pelanda and Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District executive director Craig Butler in attendance, among a host of other guests from Holmes, Wayne and the state.

Holmes SWCD joined several other bordering SWCDs to purchase the rain simulator, purchasing it with grant funding. In creating the rain simulation process, Lorson went into various types of fields and dug out 1-by-2-foot squares of soil several inches deep and laid them out under the simulator.

“We actually go out and cut these samples from area fields featuring different management practices,” Lorson said.

The purpose in testing the soils was to determine how much run-off and filtration each type of soil would produce. Lorson said the hypothesis is the no-till with cover crop and rotationally grazed pastures will create far less run-off and have greater overall saturation during a rainfall.

The different soil types included no-till with cover crop, conventional tillage with no cover crop, impervious surface to emulate run-off from a paved or blacktopped area, continuously grazed pasture and rotationally grazed pasture. Two buckets placed underneath each soil sample collected the run-off and saturation water and painted a picture of the damage rain can do and how proper care of the soil can aid in a farming effort to raise crops.

Once Lorson turned on the simulator and it started to pour, the soils did exactly what he expected them to do. He said the no-till ground with cover crop hasn’t been tilled in 10 years, but because the farmer opts to sow cover crop, the soil remains vital and productive.

“In the spring the farmer will simply knock the cover crop down and sow his crop seed right into this,” Lorson said. “That cover crop provides mulch and nutrients and protects the barren soil from the impact of the rain drop. I’m always excited to get to this particular field because the microbes and worms growing in it are vibrant and healthy. It smells different, it feels different and the crops thrive in it.”

He said no-till fields left uncovered harden and lose the life in the soil that helps prevent erosion and loss of nutrients.

“This simulator allows us to compare apples to apples when comparing how different soil-management practices do in saving soil and maintaining nutrients,” Lorson said. “This simulator has provided some real insight that is easily discernible about the effects of run-off. We see that the rotationally grazed pasture just soaks up water at a huge rate, like a sponge, while in the continually grazed field there will be tons of early infiltration, but in the end it can only hold so much water because there isn’t a lot of biology going on down below that will keep it healthy, and when it starts running off, it is going straight to the creek and carrying valuable nutrients with it. Farmers giving their soil a rest period is so valuable in maintaining a healthy soil base. Like people, soil can get tired when it gets overused, and it loses all of the life that holds it together.”

The rain simulator is shared between several different SWCDs in the region. Lorson said he picked it up from Jefferson County five days prior to his event and would take it to Guernsey County when finished. It will make a return date in late September when it will be featured as part of SWCD’s Tom Graham 5th-grade Farm Tour.

He said it is something they like to get in front of as many people as possible because it serves as such a great teaching tool that people can visualize with ease.

Chad Amos, program specialist with the Ohio Department of Agriculture, said cover crops are something that haven’t been used until recently, and he said it has opened doors for farmers to gain ground on conservation.

“The physical practice of planting the cover crop is what we pay for. It opens up a whole new world with what our districts are able to do,” Amos said. “They can connect with landowners and bring them into the decision-making process of what happens with their soil. The program pays benefits far beyond the seed we put on the ground, and this district does as good of a job as anyone in working with landowners one on one.”

In driving home the value of cover crop and rotational grazing, SWCD brought in area farmer Jason Schuch to talk about the gains he has experienced in using quality conservation practices.

“Ultimately, I would like to find a way to get a cover on everything, so we had something green growing all the time,” Schuch said. “Sometimes with our hills, it is tough to get a machine in to standing corn. We have focused mainly on the soybeans, and we have had really great success. There’s been no negative to it, and what we are dabbling with now is planting wheat, and after the wheat comes off, we plant a mix of clover, rye and radishes and let that over winter and no-till it in the spring. We’ve been able to reduce our nitrogen usage in those fields.”

Schuch said while cover crops like radishes do create an expense with no monetary value in return, he believes farmers are called to leave the land in better shape than they found it, and if getting there requires using a cover crop, the conservation part of what he does is worth the expense.

“I keep going back to that mind-set,” Schuch said.

The rainfall simulator has certainly given farmers and others a glimpse into how they can safely and efficiently utilize conservation practices in getting better production.