Field clearing to conserve topsoil advice

Asked July 18, 2020, 10:56 AM EDT

I am clearing about an acre of property for grain crops - my first time clearing land (Plan first crop this year - fall barley). I have brush-hogged the underbrush and am in the process of taking down trees, (lightly wooded, Loblolly and Virginia pine) which I plan to grind stumps to below grade. Site is on grade, about 2-6%. The site is uneven with high spots, pits and valleys (0-2' from grade). I have thin layer (est. 0-3") topsoil and clay/clay-sand underneath. I will have box-blade and grader blade avail for my 43HP utility tractor. Q: How should I grade site to conserve topsoil? Scrape, grade, then try to redistribute? or just grade and hope? Is this a consideration for grain crops? Plan to grade parallel to slope and not terrace (although would like your opinion on that). Also concerned about erosion/runoff control. Plan eventually to move to no-till, but unsure initially.

St. Mary's County Maryland

2 Responses

First- The St. Mary’s Soil Conservation office would probably be the best source of information on land clearing. There are several regulations that pertain to the disturbance of land. There are exemptions if the disturbance is for agricultural use, however I would check with them before proceeding. This is especially important if the area lies within the critical area. You can also only have less than one acre of disturbance at a time before stabilizing the area, or a notice of intent and an engineered plan is required. Again, check with the Soil Conservation office for details.

Typically, we advise to limit the amount of disturbance to the top soil. I would not recommend removing the topsoil and then regrading. Leave it where it is and use your box blade to level the ground as best as possible. You may grind the stumps, but the root mass will still be there and will create trouble for farm implements. This will work for pasture or hay ground, but not for most row crops. Try to remove stumps with an excavator and leave as much of the root soil in place as possible. I am assuming these are larger mature trees. If they are smaller 3-4 inch diameter trees than stump grinding will probably work.

You will then need to use some sort of tillage tool such as a disc or chisel plow to work the ground and level. Ideally you would add some organic matter to the soil and lime before planting. Do not leave the ground bare. Get some sort of cover on there as soon as possible. Cereal rye planted in late summer or fall will work well. Barley will also work. Annual ryegrass will give you the fastest cover, but can only be used for forage in the spring. Get a soil test. Most forest soils are low in pH and P. It typically takes about a year or two to bring these soils back into cultivation. No-till is preferred after the site has been brought back into cultivation. Slopes of 2-6 % do not need terraced.

Thank you. I will contact the conservation district.