How to ‘Deal’ with NRCS, Drain a Wetland & Erode More Soil

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While driving in southern Minnesota this week, I gazed upon acre-after-acre of  black fields—a sign that despite a wet fall, a lot of intense tillage took place before the snow flew a few months ago. Such tillage not only gives crop farmers a jump-start on the spring planting season, it also provides a nice cover for any pesky seasonal wetlands that may be lurking beneath the soil, according to the experts at Ag PhD TV. Check out this unbelievable episode from the program, which basically provides a step-by-step “how-to” for convincing the Natural Resources Conservation Service into believing a particular field isn’t good for anything but growing more corn and soybeans.

Seasonal or “temporary” wetlands that are aquatic from spring until early summer provide key ecological services in the Upper Midwest. Not only are they important habitat for waterfowl at critical times during migration and nesting, but they help the landscape deal with excessive runoff in manner that’s hydrologically sound. No doubt some Minnesota communities that grappled with flooding this spring could use a few more wetlands to help slow down and otherwise tame all that extra high-powered water.

But a lot of wetlands—seasonal as well as the more permanent type—have been drained in the name of more corn and beans (as well as housing developments) over the years. Since 1850, Minnesota has lost about half of its wetlands. In the agricultural areas that dominate the southern and western parts of the state, the loss is more like 90 percent. Since 1980 alone, Minnesota has seen a net loss of wetlands amounting to over 96,000 acres, according to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimate.

If farmers follow the advice of Ag PhD’s Brian Hefty, even more of those wetlands will be going bye-bye. “The number one question we get [when it comes to drainage] is, ‘How do I deal with NRCS on this thing?’ ” Hefty tells viewers. This “thing” he’s talking about is how does one get the conservation agency to approve the establishment of tile drainage lines in an area that is home to a seasonal wetland? It turns out, according to Ag PhD, that this is a problem one can simply solve by using lots of herbicide and plenty of intense fall tillage. One must also be willing to look the other way when the soil starts blowing.

“Get your ground ready to go. In other words, when NRCS walks out, they say, ‘Well, I don’t see wetlands here. I guess you’re approved for tiling,’ ” Hefty says, taking on the tone of a helpful public servant.

He suggests using chemicals during the fall to “kill every last weed,” or anything that’s green, including moss, for that matter. Any sign that photosynthesis is taking place could be a tip-off during a dry fall that life-giving moisture from a wetland is present somewhere beneath the topsoil.

“You also want to do deep tillage,” Hefty continues. “I want you tilling that ground 20 inches deep. And make that ground black. I don’t want anything out there—no residue, nothing!”

Not that the folks at Ag PhD aren’t cognizant of the downside to making the soil in a former prairie into the consistency of a sandbox, leaving it vulnerable to the ravages of winter winds and spring thunderstorms.

“Now the disadvantage to making that ground black is…you might have a little more erosion,” Hefty says with a concerned look on his face.


But he soon brightens up again: “Yes, one year you might have a little more erosion than you like—so what?”

Whew. Thank goodness for the phrase, “so what”—it provides a handy way to dismiss all those petty arguments for preserving soil, a healthy water cycle and a sense of integrity when it comes to dealing with the local NRCS office.

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