Soil Health Practices Benefit Playas


Playa wetlands benefit from practices that result in good soil health. The Natural Resources Conservation Service says there are four principles to improving soil health: 1) keep soil covered as much as possible; 2) disturb the soil as little as possible; 3) keep plants growing throughout the year to feed the soil; and 4) diversify as much as possible using crop rotation and cover crops.

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This is Playa Country — a weekly look at the wildlife, wetlands and prairies of the western Great Plains, and the people who manage them — brought to you by Playa Lakes Joint Venture, an organization dedicated to conserving birds and bird habitat.

Managing for soil health is one of the easiest and most effective ways for farmers to increase crop productivity and profitability… and it helps the environment, including playas, those shallow, ephemeral wetlands — also known as “buffalo wallows,” “lagoons” and “rainwater basins” — that dot the western Great Plains. Progressive practices like no-till, nutrient management, cover crops, and crop rotation reduce cropland erosion. That in turn helps keep sediment runoff out of playas, preserving their hydrology and ability to recharge the aquifer. And employing these practices can produce results that often are realized immediately and last well into the future.

Neil Dominy is Nebraska’s state soil scientist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service. He says there are four principles for improving soil health. “Keep the soil covered as much as possible; disturb the soil as little as possible; keep plants growing throughout the year to feed the soil; and diversify as much as possible using crop rotation and cover crops.”

Bladen Nebraska producer John Kinley understands no-till is a no-brainer. “Boy, we’ve had some vicious winds, 50- and 60-mile an hour winds. That’s where the no-till really shines. It’s very good protection against some of the winds we can have.”

Dave Haukos, with the U.S. Geological Survey at Kansas State University, talks-up cover crops, such as radishes and turnips. “Any type of cover crop that has extensive root systems and low vegetation above the ground, so that soil can be held in place, is beneficial.”

These no-till and cover crops practices help filter and slow the runoff into playas, giving the water a chance to drop its sediment load and keeping contaminants and soil particles out of the playa basin. Producers can also improve the health of their wetlands through nutrient management, which reduces the total amount of fertilizer used on a field and better incorporates it into the soil, again reducing the amount that ends up in the playa.

“The primary one would be feedlot runoff. Historically, playas were the principal catchment for a lot of feedlot operations. Many of those became heavily loaded with nutrients, some of which percolated down through the soil and caused high nitrogen levels.”

Or, grazing cattle on winter wheat, in playa watersheds, where you have nutrients (manure), which during rainfall can flow into a playa. Dave Haukos says it’s better to incorporate that manure into the upland soil “so that the nutrients become part of the upland, rather than all flowing down into the playa.”

Undertaking these steps improves the soil and helps keep playa lakes from filling with sediment.

“The desirable condition is to reduce the amount of suspended material — like soil and pesticides and fertilizers — from going into the playa via erosion from surrounding cropland.”

Healthy soils are high-performing and productive. They reduce production costs and improve profits. They protect natural resources and can reduce nutrient loading and sediment runoff. Reducing sediment runoff bolsters wildlife habitat, and keeps playa or rainwater basin wetlands functioning and recharging the aquifer.

“If we can emulate mother nature a little bit more in our crop rotations and our systems, we’re creating a healthier soil environment, which is making us more prepared for when the drought comes, or when the heavy rains come… better infiltration when the rains come. And then, hopefully, we’re hanging on to more moisture during the droughts.”

Your local NRCS office can help you develop a conservation plan and find a conservation program that works for you.

Playa Country, a weekly show about the wildlife, people and landscapes of the western Great Plains. Made possible by the Playa Lakes and Rainwater Basin Joint Ventures, and the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Original broadcast: March 2014

Posted: July 5, 2015
Topics: Playas, Soil Health