Nebraska landowners are seeking new solutions for a millions-year-old phenomenon.
Tons of sand, sediment and silt — some in dunes as high as 10 feet — have been scattered across the eastern half to two-thirds of the state by the March flooding.
In some areas, washed-out cornstalks are 3 to 4 feet deep. Tree limbs are in piles and topsoil has been washed away.
“We have a mountain of sand piled up,” Valley farmer Ryan Ueberrhein said.
Sediment from Nebraska’s rivers and streams has been deposited on nearby flooded land for millions of years. Now U.S. Department of Agriculture officials, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension specialists and extension educators are trying to figure out what to do with it.
They’re racing against the clock because farmers need to plant and ranchers need grass pastures to graze their cattle.
Sixteen percent of the corn crop is planted, which is slightly ahead of last year but behind the 23% five-year average.
Some ranchers may have to use the land they can, supplement their herds with hay to make up for the loss in production and deal with sand issues later in the summer.
Eight inches or less of the sand-sediment mix can usually be tilled into the soil with the right equipment, extension educator John Wilson said. But for others with much larger amounts, it may require removing sand and stockpiling it along the edge or in the corners of fields. In extreme cases, it might be too costly to do anything but leave it.
“If you have 3 to 5 feet of sand, that might be the new normal,” said Brad Schick, an extension educator based in Nance County.
That’s where people like Daren Redfearn come in. He’s an extension forage specialist at UNL, and he and his co-workers are looking into what can be planted to stabilize the massive amounts of sand that can’t be moved.
“Especially those that border rivers and waterways, so they can serve more as a levy next time something like this happens,” he said.
There is no recipe to speed the process, he said.
If it’s too costly or labor intensive to remove the sand, native prairie grasses could be one answer, providing stabilization.
Landowners could consider planting annual forages for a temporary fix this summer, Wilson said, then work on sand issues before doing a dormant seeding late in the fall or seeding next spring.
“Establishing anything in the ‘sand dunes’ this year will be challenging because of the soil texture and lack of soil structure and organic matter,” Wilson said.
Redfearn said owners need to think about their plans for the affected areas, both in the short term of five years and longer.
“The obvious solution was to haul it off, but if that’s not affordable,” he said, “then what is the next best thing to do, given what you’re working with?”
Information from what was done after the floods of 2011 is available for landowners, but it doesn’t cover all of the same issues.
It’s going to be a learning experience for everyone, Ueberrhein said. “This is all new to me.”
The 34-year-old, who farms about 2,000 acres with his dad, brother and a neighbor, has sand and cornstalks washed up on his land from the Elkhorn and Platte Rivers. And trash.
“Chairs, shelves, soccer balls, a sled, 2x4s, 2x6s,” he said. “You name it and we can probably find it. It’s just a mess. We’re trying to figure out what to do with all that.”
Anything that has landed on a property now belongs to the owner, and they must find a home for it.
It’s illegal to dump any type of fill material into U.S. waters without permission from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. There are exceptions, so the best approach is to call a corps regulatory office and talk to a project manager about the need for authorization.
Ueberrhein said 5 to 10 acres on one 80-acre piece of his land was covered in sand 2 to 4 feet deep. He hired Barger Grading of Bennington to bulldoze the sand into piles. After removal, it will be used for filler for other flood projects.
The sand was deeper than expected, making the job more expensive, but Ueberrhein said it had to be removed so he could properly plant his corn.
He has no idea what the final price tag will be.
“It’s not going to be cheap,” he said. “You have multiple trucks, a bulldozer and a loader. It gets pricey in a hurry. It’s an extra expense you hadn’t planned on.”
Other farmers along the Missouri River have piled up or wind-rowed sand along the edges of a field or in a pivot corner and won’t haul it away.
“They sacrificed a few acres of production so they could farm the rest of the field without the sand deposits,” Wilson said.
Ueberrhein said he’s one of the lucky ones. He was able to start planting this week, unlike many others across the state.
While the situation has been difficult, Ueberrhein said everyone he knows is approaching it with a positive attitude.
“I tell you, it’s building some character,” he said. “You get stressed out. You just have to take a step back and breathe. You can’t control Mother Nature. This is what it is, and you have to fight it head on. That’s what we are doing.”