Mark McCauley, Resource Conservationist
The Hamilton County SWCD has been conducting an annual tillage transect in the county for the past 20+ years. I was going through my files the other day and came across the very first transect data we collected in 1990! More recently we have also added a cover crop transect, which is done in the fall while the tillage transect is done in the spring.
So what’s it all about? When the tillage transect was first developed a route was laid out starting in the northwest part of the county and crisscrossing back and forth as we moved south, collecting data at 300+ points along the way. These same points have been sampled every year since, with the exception of some changes that had to be made due to road closures, new developments, etc. The original route was meant to represent a cross section of the agricultural land use in the county which covered a variety of soil types and land uses.
So why is that important? The SWCD has been promoting conservation practices since its inception back in the 1960’s. Conservation practices help protect our natural resources by reducing soil erosion, improving water quality in streams, lakes, and ponds, and reducing potential associated costs with clean-up and remediation. By tracking changes in land use, the SWCD can better tailor our efforts and programs to address any needs and shortfalls we are seeing in conservation. The transect data also helps our conservation partners better target potential funding programs to address conservation needs in the state. Over time the data has shown that more conservation tillage is being used across the county by farmers, as well as a uptick in cover crop use, so our efforts have been worthwhile.
In recent years we have added the cover crop transect. Cover crops are probably the single most beneficial practice that can be implemented to reduce soil erosion, improve soil health, improve the quality of stormwater runoff, and increase ground water recharge. By conducting this transect in the fall we can track the adoption of cover crops used in the county over time. We do the cover crop transect in the fall because crops are typically planted close to harvest of the cash crop (usually corn or soybeans locally). Since some of these cover crop species “winter kill” (meaning they die back in the winter), it would be more difficult to identify them the following spring than it is in the fall, so thus the reason for a fall transect.
So if you see a county or USDA vehicle crisscrossing the county in the spring and fall with flashers on, slowing down at intervals, with SWCD staff peering out both sides of the windows taking notes on the current status of the land use… don’t worry. That’s just us helping to promote conservation in the county--which in the end benefits us all.