When driving along a road in central Illinois farm country, if I see a ditch that’s been disked and planted right to the bottom it makes me a little sad… was fitting in that extra row of corn really worth it? The first heavy spring rain will carry literal tons of that beautiful Illinois black gold halfway to the gulf of Mexico, and a good deal of fertility with it. On the other hand, I see a well-maintained ditch as a sign that someone cares about that land. Whether it be a landowner or a tenant, somebody was interested enough to preserve that strip of grass.
Early in the spring, a nicely shaped roadside channel with its strip of grass will hold back literal tons of soil per acre and an equally impressive amount of nitrogen and phosphorus. Later in the summer, the grass in that ditch might be getting a bit tall and will provide a nice place for birds like quail and pheasant to hide and raise young. Come fall when that field is getting harvested, the ditch is going to give wildlife a place to escape and find shelter. If the grass is un-mowed over the winter, it’s going to act as a natural snow fence, slowing down the prairie winds that can leave rural roads covered in drifts. The seed heads on that tall grass are going to feed over-wintering birds when the other food sources disappear.
If you care about your land, I think you’ll agree that a well-shaped and densely-grassed ditch is worth the effort in all seasons. The old adage that “good fences make good neighbors” may have some merit, but in today’s age of changing weather patterns and nutrient loss issues, I’d argue that good ditches are even more important.
By Lauren Spaniol, Resource Conservationist