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David Lobb, soil science professor at the University of Manitoba, presents research findings in an informational session at the annual Lake Region Extension Roundup in Devils Lake on Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2018. Nick Nelson / Agweek

Don't let up soil erosion battle

DEVILS LAKE, N.D. — Canadian and U.S. farmers have won major victories in the long war against soil erosion. But the struggle isn't over, and a dangerous "sense of fatigue," especially among policymakers, has set in, a Canadian scientist says.

Though the amount of new soil erosion has plunged, even small losses of remaining soil cost farmers billions of dollars annually though reduced yields and lost crop sales, said David Lobb, professor of soil science at the University of Manitoba.

He spoke Jan. 10 on the second and final day of the 37th annual extension Roundup farm show in Devils Lake, N.D. Roundup presented information on a wide range of agricultural topics and issues, primarily to farmers and ranchers in north central North Dakota.

Farmers in the prairies of southern Canada and the Great Plains of the Upper Midwest generally have similar soil and climate and face many of the same challenges.

Lobb emphasized to his Devils Lake audience that the numbers and trends he identified in Canada also hold true in the United States.

"Just because it's Canadian data, don't think it's not relevant to you," he said. "It's extremely relevant."

Economists aren't studying the cost of soil erosion, which encourages Lobb, a soil scientist, to do it, he said.

A growing problem

In the 1980s, research showed that soil erosion cost a billion (Canadian) dollars a year north of the border and billions of dollars a year south of the border. That led to "a massive push for soil conservation programs on both sides of the border," Lobb said.

The programs enjoyed considerable success, with soil losses dropping dramatically. Unfortunately, that has greatly diminished government interest in funding and supporting efforts to fight soil erosion, he said

"Some will argue that there's really no interest in soil conservation at all from the government standpoint," with the government assuming that "the job is done and it's time to move on to something else," Lobb said.

Lobb thinks otherwise.

"The job is not done at all," he said.

In fact, the economic cost of soil loss has increased, not declined, making the fight against soil erosion as important — and possibly more important — than ever, he said.

For one thing, researchers have much more detailed data on soil loss now than they did in the 1970s and 1980s. That allows them to draw better, more detailed conclusions about economic losses, he said.

The increased popularity of high-value crops is another factor, Lobb said.

A farmer who plants, say, corn on a field instead of wheat has greater gross income per acre, which magnifies the economic pain of reduced yields from soil loss. A farmer with a 10 percent yield loss on a corn field grossing, say, $400 per acre has a bigger economic hit than a producer with a 10 percent yield on a wheat field grossing, say, $200 per acre.

And the importance of historic soil loss — the soil lost cumulatively in the past — can't be forgotten. Even small new losses now, coming on top of historic soil loss, can cut sharply into yields, Lobb said.

Cumulative soil loss "is the most critical thing when you're trying to trying to understand conservation planning and crop production," Lobb said.

Lobb's two main takeaway points:

• Soil conservation efforts "need to be reinvigorated, need to be smarter, need to be targeted (as) appropriate to soil and landscapes, climate and cropping systems."

• "Conservation tillage is only the first step. Restoring the soil is the second step."

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