With fall crops withering in the face of heat and drought, farmers might be wishing they had an affordable underground water-storage system that could reduce the financial impact of this summer’s severe weather.
Well, that wish might be more attainable than they think.
The drought has given Austin Jost, a staff member with the Natural Resources Conservation Service office in Marion, one more reason to tout the benefits of grass buffers.
“Buffers are going to help because they store water,” she said. “It’s underground and the roots are storing it. Crops can usually access it.
“Buffers along stream lines even are not necessarily sucking up all the water like trees are,” Jost added. “The trees wouldn’t be able to suck the moisture away because the grass roots store the water in the plant instead of in the dirt.
“The grass is going to get first dibs because the roots are smaller and take moisture from a bigger area.”
Jost empathizes with the dire situation facing local farmers.
“Everybody’s complaining that there’s no rain,” she said. “With the drought, there’s no saving the crops because they’re past what they call the pollination stage. So even if we get a good rain, they’re going to have to wait until it’s time to reseed.”
Jost said farming will always be a weather-based gamble, but grass buffers are one way farmers can at least hedge their bets.
“Yes, you’re spending a little bit of money to put (a buffer) in, but if you’re cost-share eligible you’re saving money—plus getting paid, especially during a drought season. You’ll have some cash flow coming in.”
The up-front investment in establishing a grass buffer can be recovered, based on eligibility rules. But the investment can generate longterm benefits, according to Jost.
“Grass is something that doesn’t come up just once a season and then you have to turn around and replant it,” she said. “It’s there permanently. It’s not going to go away. You have to maintain it maybe once a year, and that’s either hay or graze it.
“It’s a guaranteed money-maker kind of thing, and it’s going to help your crops because it’s going to keep moisture n the field, and it’s allowing everything else in the field to pay your way.”
Jost said buffers can be established almost any time during the year.
“Usually we start contracting stuff out in the spring,” she said. “But if people want to put these in now, they need to come into the office and sign up. We’re going to do anything we can to make this as priceless for them as possible so they can get money back, too.”
The process from first contact with the NRCS office to planting the seeds for grass and forbs can take from a couple of days to maybe a month.
“It all depends on how flexible they want to be and how easy to get along with,” Jost said. “If they’re going to be stubborn—like, I don’t want it this big or that long—well, we still have to follow the rules just like they do.”
The minimum width for a grass buffer is 30 feet and the maximum is 120 feet.
“As for length, they normally want it on all four sides of the field,” Jost said. “If there’s a hedge in the middle (of the field), they want it around the whole hedge row.”
Other rules are that the farmer can’t be driving on the grass constantly and can’t turn cattle out on the grass without permission—such as the emergency-grazing situation that has been enacted this summer.
In addition to storing water for crops, grass buffers also can provide a measure of fire protection in the field.
“It’s green, and green grass doesn’t burn,” Jost said. She added with a laugh: “I’ve tried to burn green grass and it just does not work. Even though grass may be turning dry-ish now (because of the drought), it’s still holding moisture.”
The primary purposes of grass buffers is to prevent rain from washing soil and chemicals off a field and into streams and lakes. For example, experts agree the soil runoff that brings nitrogen and phosphorous into Marion Reservoir is a key contributor to the toxic blue-green algae blooms that have plagued the lake the past several years.
“If it does rain really hard, with buffers it’s not washing their crops into streams,” Jost said. “It’s still keeping the crop in the fields.”
Buffers also provide natural cover for wildlife.
For more information about grass buffers, Jost can be reached at 620-382-3737 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.