Biological Systems Engineering


Date of this Version



Conservation Tillage, Conservation Technology Information Center, 1991


The Erosion Process

Erosion of topsoil begins when water detaches individual soil particles from clod and other soil aggregates. A single raindrop may seem insignificant, yet collectively, raindrops strike the ground with surprising force. During an intense storm, rainfall can loosen and detach up to 100 tons of soil per acre and can be especially erosive when residue mulch or vegetation are not present to absorb their impact.

Two problems often occur during rainstorms. The rate of rainfall can exceed the rate at which water can enter the soil and raindrop impact forces can partially seal the soil surface. In the first in distance, the excess water either collects on or runs off the soil surface and in the second, less water can infiltrate into the soil, causing more runoff. This runoff will travel downhill, carrying soil particles with it.

Runoff from steeper areas flows at greater velocities and may transport considerable amounts of soil. Further, longer slopes have greater flows because water is concentrated from a larger area. As runoff flow across unprotected soil surfaces, additional soil particles are dislodged, thus creating even more soil erosion.

Residue Reduces Erosion

Crop residue helps protect the soil surface from raindrop impact. It. also reduces surface crusting, sealing and rainfall-induced soil compaction, all of which increase water runoff by reducing infiltration. In addition, runoff is reduced because pieces of residue form a complex series of small dams and obstructions that slow the runoff.

Years of research show that no-till planting systems, which leave the greatest amount of residue cover, can reduce soil erosion by 90 to 95 percent of that occurring from cleanly tilled systems. As little as a 30 percent residue cover can reduce erosion by 65 percent as shown in the illustration. Prior land use, crop canopy and surface roughness also influence erosion from different tillage and planting systems, but residue cover is the single most important factor.