Soil erosion is one form of soil degradation along with soil compaction, low organic matter, loss of soil structure, poor internal drainage, salinisation, and soil acidity problems. These other forms of soil degradation, serious in themselves, usually contribute to accelerated soil erosion.
Soil erosion is a naturally occurring process on all land. The agents of soil erosion are water and wind, each contributing a significant amount of soil loss each year in Ontario.
Soil erosion may be a slow process that continues relatively unnoticed, or it may occur at an alarming rate causing serious loss of topsoil. The loss of soil from farmland may be reflected in reduced crop production potential, lower surface water quality and damaged drainage netwoks.
Erosion by Water
The rate and magnitude of soil erosion by water is controlled by the following factors:
Both rainfall and runoff factors must be considered in assessing a water erosion problem. The impact of raindrops on the soil surface can break down soil aggregates and disperse the aggregate material. Lighter aggregate materials such as very fine sand, silt, clay and organic matter can be easily removed by the raindrop splash and runoff water; greater raindrop energy or runoff amounts might be required to move the larger sand and gravel particles.
Soil movement by rainfall (raindrop splash) is usually greatest and most noticeable during short-duration, high-intensity thunderstorms. Although the erosion caused by long-lasting and less-intense storms is not as spectacular or noticeable as that produced during thunderstorms, the amount of soil loss can be significant, especially when compounded over time. Runoff can occur whenever there is excess water on a slope that cannot be absorbed into the soil or trapped on the surface. The amount of runoff can be increased if infiltration is reduced due to soil compaction, crusting or freezing. Runoff from the agricultural land may be greatest during spring months when the soils are usually saturated, snow is melting and vegetative cover is minimal.
Soil erodibility is an estimate of the ability of soils to resist erosion, based on the physical characteristics of each soil. Generally, soils with faster infiltration rates, higher levels of organic matter and improved soil structure have a greater resistance to erosion. Sand, sandy loam and loam textured soils tend to be less erodible than silt, very fine sand, and certain clay textured soils.
Tillage and cropping practices which lower soil organic matter levels, cause poor soil structure, and result of compacted contribute to increases in soil erodibility. Decreased infiltration and increased runoff can be a result of compacted subsurface soil layers. A decrease in infiltration can also be caused by a formation of a soil crust, which tends to "seal" the surface. On some sites, a soil crust might decrease the amount of soil loss from sheet or rain splash erosion, however, a corresponding increase in the amount of runoff water can contribute to greater rill erosion problems.
Past erosion has an effect on a soils' erodibility for a number of reasons. Many exposed subsurface soils on eroded sites tend to be more erodible than the original soils were, because of their poorer structure and lower organic matter. The lower nutrient levels often associated with subsoils contribute to lower crop yields and generally poorer crop cover, which in turn provides less crop protection for the soil.
Naturally, the steeper the slope of a field, the greater the amount of soil loss from erosion by water. Soil erosion by water also increases as the slope length increases due to the greater accumulation of runoff. Consolidation of small fields into larger ones often results in longer slope lengths with increased erosion potential, due to increased velocity of water which permits a greater degree of scouring (carrying capacity for sediment).
Soil erosion potential is increased if the soil has no or very little vegetative cover of plants and/or crop residues. Plant and residue cover protects the soil from raindrop impact and splash, tends to slow down the movement of surface runoff and allows excess surface water to infiltrate.
The erosion-reducing effectiveness of plant and/or residue covers depends on the type, extent and quantity of cover. Vegetation and residue combinations that completely cover the soil, and which intercept all falling raindrops at and close to the surface and the most efficient in controlling soil (e.g. forests, permanent grasses ). Partially incorporated residues and residual roots are also important as these provide channels that allow surface water to move into the soil.
The effectiveness of any crop, management system or protective cover also depends on how much protection is available at various periods during the year, relative to the amount of erosive rainfall that falls during these periods. In this respect, crops which provide a food, protective cover for a major portion of the year (for example, alfalfa or winter cover crops) can reduce erosion much more than can crops which leave the soil bare for a longer period of time (e.g. row crops) and particularly during periods of high erosive rainfall (spring and summer). However, most of the erosion on annual row crop land can be reduced by leaving a residue cover greater than 30% after harvest and over the winter months, or by inter-seeding a forage crop (e.g. red clover).
Soil erosion potential is affected by tillage operations, depending on the depth, direction and timing of plowing, the type of tillage equipment and the number of passes. Generally, the less the disturbance of vegetation or residue cover at or near the surface, the more effective the tillage practice in reducing erosion.
Certain conservation measures can reduce soil erosion by both water and wind. Tillage and cropping practices, as well a land management practices, directly affect the overall soil erosion problem and solutions on a farm. When crop rotations or changing tillage practices are not enough to control erosion on a field, a combination of approaches or more extreme measures might be necessary. For example, contour plowing, strip cropping, or terracing may be considered.