Heavy rain and snow melt caused gullies where soil was washed away from the field of Beresford farmer Jed Olbertson. He normally plants a cover crop to prevent erosion.

Wet fields in the tri-state area have left farmers with fields damaged by erosion and compaction issues, and it could take years to recover.

The wet fall kept Beresford, South Dakota, farmer Jed Olbertson from planting his usual rye cover crop after harvesting corn silage, and it’s a move he regrets.

The last few years, he’s planted rye after chopping corn as a way to keep soil from being washed and blown away during the winter months and to help choke out weeds. He usually cuts it in early June and puts some up for dry hay before planting soybeans.

Last year, it was wet and muddy during silage cutting. Halfway through, he switched to grinding ear corn. Then he went straight to combining soybeans and never got time to drill a rye cover.

This spring, he found his gently rolling fields covered with a network of gullies a couple inches deep where runoff had carried topsoil away.

“It’s a tremendous amount of dirt,” he said.

The rye would have helped soak up some water and keep most of that soil in place. Cover crops aren’t the answer to every problem, he said, but in this case, rye could have reduced the damage. After snow melted and heavy rains came, the topsoil turned into a slurry like he’d never seen before.

“This is kind of an extraordinary event, but I guess we need to plan for extraordinary events,” he said.

Across the Midwest, a winter of heavy snow and spring flooding has left fields too wet for fieldwork at a time when the first planters are getting ready to roll. Not only will growers be waiting for soil to dry out enough to plant this spring, they’ll also be dealing with compaction issues caused by running harvest equipment through wet fields last fall.

“A lot of fields were pretty marred up from harvest,” said Tom Schmit, an agronomist with Golden Harvest based in Elkton, South Dakota.

In some areas farmers were unable to apply fall fertilizer or complete fall tillage work – which turned out to be a good thing. Having crop residue in place and keeping from exposing more soil helped minimize erosion and runoff during the wet spring.

“That’s a bit of a blessing in disguise,” Schmitt said.

He urges farmers to be patient this spring and wait for the right field conditions before planting.

Wet soils also provide ripe conditions for bacterial and fungal diseases. While seed treatments to protect against those diseases have become fairly standard for most farmers, Schmit reminds growers to continue using a good seed treatment and check the disease ratings in seed catalogs.

As for dealing with compacted soils, spring tillage will only make the problem worse, he said. He suggests raising a cover crop in the off-season to help repair the soils over the next few seasons.

“This isn’t something that’s going to be fixed overnight,” Schmit said.

When soils are damaged with wheel tracks, it causes compaction anywhere from a few inches to several feet deep, soil specialist Anthony Bly said in a South Dakota State University Extension news release.

“Even shallow ruts of a few inches can cause issues with optimal seed depth during planting if they exceed planting depth,” he said.

Before repairing ruts, farmers should allow the top 2 to 4 inches of topsoil to dry, said SDSU Extension agronomist Sara Bauder. Bly suggests targeting specific areas with light tillage – using a vertical tillage tool, light disc, soil finisher or harrow – rather than tilling an entire field.

“Deep tillage will disturb the soil at lower depths with excessive moisture and may cause even more compaction damage,” he said.

He said there are benefits to moving to no-till management. No-till farmers in southeastern South Dakota were able to get into their fields earlier and had minimal issues with field ruts, he said. Tillage leads to worse compaction issues because tillage disrupts soil aggregates and good soil structure.

“Moving in the direction of no-till can help producers build soil structure, giving soils a stronger shear strength,” Bauder said.

Janelle is editor of the Tri-State Neighbor, covering South Dakota, southwestern Minnesota, northwestern Iowa and northeastern Nebraska. Reach her at or follow on Twitter @JLNeighbor


Janelle is editor of the Tri-State Neighbor, covering South Dakota, southwestern Minnesota, northwestern Iowa and northeastern Nebraska.