The true cost of soil erosion

no-till corn field
No-till corn field. Farm and Dairy file photo.

Sedimentation is the number one resource concern in all of eastern Ohio. Soil erosion has many effects, both at the site and elsewhere. Loss of soil productivity is the main effect, but sedimentation and increased nutrient load of our waterways and reservoirs are common. The costs of soil erosion are far-reaching, but when intensified by human activity, it can have negative environmental, societal and economic impacts.

Soil erosion happens when there is not enough cover on the soil, causing the soil to leave due to rain or wind. Activities like tilling farmland and clearing land of trees leave the soil vulnerable to erosion. The soils that are washed away contain nutrients and sometimes herbicides and pesticides. Once that soil leaves it eventually ends up in our streams, rivers and lakes causing harmful algal blooms.

Water quality issues

Algal blooms occur when algae grow out of control and can produce toxic or harmful effects to people and wildlife. Oftentimes, these lakes are used to supply fresh drinking water to towns and cities and these algal blooms make the water dangerous for consumption.

I’m sure everyone has heard about the issues within the City of Toledo and its harmful algal blooms that caused issues with their drinking water. But let’s think about a more local example, the Village of Cadiz uses surface water drawn from Tappan Lake, which was created by impounding Little Stillwater Creek.

Besides drinking water quality, soil erosion is also the main cause of lakes needing to be dredged, a process that removes nutrient-rich sediments to increase the depth and health of the lake and costs a lot of money.

Economic loss

Let’s take a different look at soil erosion. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, lost farm income is estimated at $100 million per year due to soil erosion in the U.S. If the soil that leaves your farm is rich in nutrients, how much money is leaving your farm?

While most erosion is not visible to the naked eye it is happening, but some soil erosion can be so severe that you visibly see it in your farm field, yard or stream bank. The average soil loss rate is 5.8 tons per acre per year. That is 1/32 inches of soil across an acre which amounts to a little more than the thickness of a dime and when you lose soil, you’re losing yield, to the tune of about 15 bushels per acre per year. With last year’s average price per bushel of soybeans that is equal to $210 in earnings lost.

But that’s not all! According to the soil scientist Francisco Arriaga, of the University of Wisconsin, 1 ton of optimal soil contains 2 pounds of nitrogen, 9 pounds of phosphorus and 31 pounds of potassium. If the average soil loss is 5.8 tons, that value is $77.02 per acre just in lost nutrients, not to mention loss of future productivity. That’s a loss of $287 per year per acre, which amounts to $43,050 per year on a 150-acre farm! Remember, when soils are eroding off your field, that’s dollars washing away and it takes many years to replace what is lost in moments. And this example is with average soil erosion.

If you till your ground or you find yourself having to disc your gullies back in, you are losing much more than the average soil erosion, both in money and productivity. Food for thought, according to the USDA, it takes 500 years to form one inch of new life-giving soil.

One of the easiest ways to protect your soil and keep it from eroding is to cover and protect what is there…and stop tilling it. Examples of covers that could be used to protect the soil include cover crops if used in a crop field, or trees or other vegetation on a stream bank. But you don’t have to do this alone. If you are interested in saving the soil on your property or farm and don’t know where to start, call Carroll Soil and Water Conservation District. Our staff has the knowledge and tools to help you get started conserving your soil today.

Because, as Theodore Roosevelt once said, “​I recognize the right and duty of this generation to develop and use the natural resources of our land: but I do not recognize the right to waste them, or to rob, by wasteful use, the generations that come after us.”


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