It used to be standard procedure each spring to hook up a big tractor to a disk and smooth out ditches that formed in the field over the past year to prepare for planting, even no-till planting. But, “smoothing out ditches” actually amounts to destroying the soil structure and integrity of the field around the ditch in order to make it look smooth. The final result is a natural drainage area being given a loose-dirt bottom that will be blown out even deeper with the next big rain, compounding the original problem. Reflecting on this makes me wonder how much the topography of these fields has changed over the past 200 years of this tillage practice.
Today we fix ditches smarter with a 12 yard dirt-moving scraper (or dirt pan, as we call it). The earth is for mining as well as farming, so we find a place in the edge of a field or other under-utilized land to scrape off topsoil, then lay it in the ditch, mounding it up, driving over it to pack it in, and flattening it out as we finish. The result is a structurally sound, water-dispersing, natural drainage area that will resist washing out through the next big rains. If the area gathers too much water for crop roots to hold, we set aside the drainage area from planting and spraying, sow it with fescue which grows a thick mat of roots and ground cover, and call it a grassed waterway.