Pennsylvania Farm-A-Syst: Worksheet 11: Soil Conservation Management

A good soil-management program can help to protect soil, reduce runoff into surface water, and maintain or improve soil quality.
Pennsylvania Farm-A-Syst: Worksheet 11: Soil Conservation Management - Articles


Why Be Concerned?

Soil conservation protects a valuable resource and reduces the off-farm direct impacts of sediment or the indirect impacts of nutrients or pesticides that may be attached to eroded soil particles. A good soil management program has three goals: to protect the soil from erosion by water or wind; to reduce runoff from the land into surface water; and to maintain or improve soil quality.

Agricultural production activities such as tillage accelerate soil erosion by reducing vegetative cover, breaking down soil structure, and increasing soil compaction. Eroded soils are often less productive, and crops growing in these soils are subject to more stress during the growing season. Erosion removes the most valuable soil fractions and leaves soils that can require a long time or intensive management to restore.

Many conservation practices have been designed to reduce soil erosion. For example, cropland terraces and diversions reduce effective slope length and direct surface runoff to protected outlets; grassed waterways and other protected channels move water from the fields while protecting the soil from scouring; contour planting and conservation tillage are designed to slow runoff, hold the soil and nutrients in place, and reduce soil erosion; and field borders and grassed buffer zones trap soil before it leaves fields. More organic matter in the soil helps to prevent erosion by water and wind. It also helps to prevent crusting and surface soil compaction and to promote soil moisture holding capacity. Crop rotations, manure applications, and reduced tillage can build up or maintain soil organic matter, contribute to surface residue cover, improve soil structure, and help reduce soil degradation.

Runoff from agricultural land can be a major source of pollution in streams, lakes, and rivers. Excessive sediment from eroding crop-land and overgrazed pastures can diminish fish and wildlife habitat and reduce the storage capacity of water reservoirs. Water treatment costs for human use are increased because of excess sediment. If pesticides, nutrients, or soil sediment reach a water source, they can reduce water quality, thus killing fish and other aquatic life. Nutrients such as phosphorus or nitrogen that enter water resources through surface runoff are a major cause of algal blooms, which can kill fish and other aquatic wildlife and make the water unfit for drinking or recreation.

Erosion rates can be calculated by conservation professionals using information from their years of experience and research-based soil loss equations. However, visual inspections and repeated observations of the same areas over time can provide clues to the extent of erosion that is taking place. The extent to which specific soil conservation practices are implemented can also provide some insight into the risk of soil degradation. This worksheet is designed to aid in a preliminary evaluation of soil conservation. It can be applied to an individual field or groups of fields on a farm depending on the differences in management or site conditions. If the potential for soil erosion or degradation is identified, professional assistance should be obtained to determine the extent of any problems and possible actions to reduce them.

The goal of Pennsylvania Farm-A-Syst is to help you protect groundwater and surface water, shared resources which are important to everyone.

How to Rank Groundwater and Surface Water Protection Using This Worksheet

  • You can select from a wide range of conditions and management practices that are related to potential surface water and groundwater contamination.
  • You can rank the conditions and management practices on your operation according to how they might affect surface water or groundwater.
  • Based on your overall ratings, you can determine which of your conditions or practices are reasonably safe and effective, and which might require modification to better protect surface water and groundwater.

How to Complete the Worksheet

Download the Soil Conservation Management worksheet . Follow the directions as listed on page 1 of the worksheet. The evaluation should take 15–30 minutes for each evaluation site to complete and determine your ranking. Evaluate each place where soil is likely to erode on your farm. There are spaces provided to rank up to three sites. If you are unfamiliar with any of the terms used, refer to the glossary provided with this worksheet.

Information derived from Farm-A-Syst worksheets is intended only to provide general information and recommendations to farmers regarding their own farm and farmstead practices or conditions. It is not the intent of this educational program to keep records of individual results. However, the results may be shared with others who will help you develop a resource management plan.

How to Use These Rankings

Step 1. Now that each feature has been ranked, add all these rankings together and put that value in the “Total” box at the end of the worksheet. Transfer that number to the box below.

Step 2. Divide the value in the “Total” box by the number of features ranked.

Step 3. Repeat for the remaining sites. Calculate the average ranking for all sites combined.

Step 4. Evaluate the overall management practices and site conditions.

  • 3.6–4.0 = best management
  • 2.6–3.5 = good management
  • 1.6–2.5 = fair management
  • 1.0–1.5 = poor management

This ranking gives an idea of how soil conservation management as a whole might affect water quality. This ranking should serve only as a very general guide, not a precise diagnosis. Since it represents an averaging of many individual rankings, it can mask any individual rankings (such as 1s and 2s) that should be of concern.

Step 5. Look over the rankings for individual features of each site:

  • Best (4s): the current ideal
  • Good (3s): provides reasonable surface and groundwater protection
  • Fair (2s): inadequate protection in many circumstances
  • Poor (1s): poses a high risk of polluting surface water or groundwater

Regardless of the overall ranking, any individual rankings of “1” should receive immediate attention. Some concerns can be taken care of right away; others could be major or costly projects, requiring planning and prioritizing before taking action.

Step 6. Consider how to modify farm management practices or site conditions to better protect water quality. Contact the local conservation district, Penn State Extension office, or the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service for ideas, suggestions, or guidance.


Buffer Strip: A permanent strip of vegetation at least 10 feet wide along the side of a watercourse that helps to reduce soil erosion, runoff speed so sediment is deposited, and water pollution. Some regulations for concentrated animal feeding operations may require buffer strips of 30–100 feet for manure application.

Compliance Plan: Establishes the minimum level of conservation treatment needed to meet conservation compliance requirements for USDA farm program benefits, but may not meet other state and federal soil erosion and sedimentation control laws and regulations.

Cover Crops: Densely seeded crops (typically rye, oats, wheat, vetch)generally grown between principal crop production periods, especially over winter, to protect soil from erosion when crop resides are low or removed for feed or bedding and to capture or hold residual nutrients (including nitrogen), thus reducing potential loss of nutrients. In the case of vetch or other legumes, nitrogen may be produced for subsequent crops.

Critical Runoff Problem Areas: Where nutrients and/or sediment discharge directly into surface water or groundwater and are identified as part of Pennsylvania’s Nutrient Management Act, Chapter 83.

Crop Residue: Plant material left in fields that is not harvested for feed or removed for bedding and other uses.

Crusting: A solid layer of soil that may form on the surface after a heavy rain. A soil crust makes it harder for plants to emerge from the soil.

Ephemeral Gully: Well-defined converging channels in the soil that result from water runoff. Ephemeral gully channels are deeper than rills, can be crossed by field equipment with some difficulty, and/or can be repaired with common field operations.

Eroded Soil: Soil from which most or all of the topsoil has been lost.

Gully Erosion: Soil detachment and movement causing converging channels in the soil as a result of water runoff. They are well developed converging channels that form in the soil as a result of water runoff and cannot be crossed by farm equipment. Gullies are deeper and more pronounced than ephemeral gullies. Field equipment alone cannot be used to repair the damage. Once gullies form, they generally continue to grow longer, deeper, and wider.

Highly Erodible Land (HEL): Cropland fields with a high potential for soil erosion that are required to be farmed according to an approved conservation compliance plan as specified in the 1985 Farm Bill (Food Security Act) and the 1990 Farm Bill (Food, Agriculture, Conservation, and Trade Act). These areas can be identified upon request by USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service staff.

Perennial Stream: Surface water course that carries water most, if not all year, usually with well-defined stream banks, streambed, and often have adjacent floodplains.

Rill Erosion: Small, parallel channels that form in the soil as a result of water runoff. Farm equipment is able to easily cross these small channels and fill them.

Sheet Erosion: The loss of a uniform layer of soil by water. Signs of sheet erosion include:

  1. exposed plant roots
  2. stones uncovered by moving water
  3. stones supported by protected pedestals of soil
  4. sediment deposition in low lying areas

Soil Compaction: Loss of pore space in the soil due to equipment and animals. Compaction makes it difficult for air and water to move through the soil.

Soil Conservation Practices: The implemented soil conservation practices that should be routinely maintained include waterways, terraces, diversions, tile outlets, sediment control basins, and the boundaries for strip cropping and contour farming.

Soil Conservation Plan: Addresses conservation and sustained soil use by documenting gully, rill, and sheet erosion control needs to meet tolerable soil loss levels and the requirements to minimize sediment loss from fields. This plan will address water quality concerns for sediment and meet the Pennsylvania Clean Streams Law, Chapter 102, requirements for erosion and sediment control.

Soil Degradation: Reduction in soil quality that results in poor crop growth.

Soil Drainage (Natural): The frequency and length of time when the soil is free of excessive water. For example, water drains quickly through well-drained soils. In poorly drained soils the root zone is water logged for long periods of time unless some form of artificial drainage is installed.

Soil Erosion/Soil Loss: The movement of soil particles from one place to another by water or tillage.

Soil Quality: This is a measure of soil health. A good quality soil has:

  • adequate pore space—not compacted (for air and water movement)
  • a good supply of nutrients
  • high levels of organic matter
  • good drainage
  • an active soil life (earthworms, fungi, bacteria).

Good quality soil resists erosion and nutrient loss.

Soil Structure: Soil particles stick together into clumps called aggregates. A soil that has lots of stable aggregates, lots of pore space, and does not crust has good soil structure.

Tolerable Soil Loss: The maximum erosion that that can take place without loss of soil productivity. Tolerable soil loss rates vary among soil types; however, the majority of rates are from 3 to 5 tons per acre per year. Tolerable soil loss rates have been determined for local soil mapping units by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service and are available in the published soil survey.

Water table: Zone of free water in soil, geologic material, or bedrock. There are two types of water tables:

  1. the water table typically noted in a water well log as an indication of a usable water supply
  2. the seasonal high water table. The seasonal high water table is usually within the crop root zone. It may be a perched, temporary zone or a persistent saturated zone where subsurface water flows converge throughout much of the year. It is the most important water table for soil water management and crop growth.

Waterways: Areas where runoff concentrates and flows across fields. These areas may require special management to control scouring and to reduce sediment transport from the field. If these areas are unprotected, gullies may develop that restrict field operations and that are sources of sediment in runoff.


Material for the Pennsylvania Farm-A-Syst package was developed by revision of Farm-A-Syst material from Texas Cooperative Extension, North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service, and the National Farm-A-Syst/Home-A-Syst Program. Additional format and style features for the Pennsylvania package were adapted from the Ontario Environmental Farm Plan published by Ontario Farm Environmental Coalition, Ontario, Canada.

Partial funding for the development of the Pennsylvania Farm-A-Syst package was provided by USDA-EQIP funds from

Preparation: Les Lanyon, professor of soil science and management, Penn State, Department of Crop and Soil Sciences; Jerry Martin, Penn State Extension, Nutrient Management Education Program; and Joel Myers, state agronomist, USDA-NRCS.

Project Coordinators: Barry Frantz, state resource conservationist, USDA-NRCS; Les Lanyon, Penn State, Department of Crop and Soil Sciences.

Advisory Committee: Mark Goodson, area agronomy agent, Penn State Extension; Fran Koch, environmental planning supervisor, Bureau of Watershed Management, Department of Environmental Protection; Larry Martick, district manager, Adams County Conservation District; Tom McCarty, multicounty water quality agent, Penn State Extension; Kelly O’Neill, agricultural policy analyst, Chesapeake Bay Foundation; Carl Rohr, conservation program specialist, Bureau of Watershed Management, Department of Environmental Protection.

Technical Review: Doug Beegle, professor of agronomy, Department of Crop and Soil Sciences, Penn State; Doug Goodlander, State Conservation Commission; Samuel High, district conservationist, USDA-NRCS.

Additional Technical Assistance: Therese Pitterle, Department of Crop and Soil Sciences, Penn State.

Pennsylvania Farm-A-Syst is a cooperative effort among Penn State Extension, Pennsylvania Association of Conservation Districts, Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, and USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.