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Water management spurs revolution

Gil Gullickson 04/04/2012 @ 11:16am Crops Technology Editor for Successful Farming magazine/Agriculture.com

Back in 1990, Dwayne Beck was a panel speaker during a central South Dakota program about how the region could boost its agricultural output.

“I got up and said if we no-till here, I think we can grow corn and grow crops like peas (every year),” says Beck, who today manages the Dakota Lakes Research Farm near Pierre, South Dakota. “All the calves that go through Fort Pierre livestock auction going to Oklahoma to eat corn produced under irrigation from an aquifer that is going dry, we can feed here. The other three people on the panel told everyone how stupid I was.”

Beck and the region's farmers have had the last laugh. Today, there is a cornucopia of crops that traditional winter wheat-fallow farmers could only dream about a generation ago. Grain bins built to house increased grain production form striking silhouettes against scarlet sunsets. Dust storms, once common decades ago, are now nil due to the year-round crop cover present on many fields.

“It is all about managing water,” says Beck. Water management through tools like no-till and cover crops has helped farmers intensify crop rotations. It's led to an increase in revenue of $1.123 billion from 1990 to 2009 in central and north-central South Dakota.

Search for solutions

Thirty years ago, this area supported an uneasy mix of winter wheat followed by a year of fallow punctuated by corn irrigated with Missouri River water. Wheat prices, which supported winter wheat-fallow in the 1970s, crashed when exports to the former Soviet Union dwindled in the early 1980s. Meanwhile, high energy prices that resulted from pulling water several hundred feet upward from the Missouri River nixed irrigated corn profits.

That caused the region's farmers and researchers to search for solutions.

Before managing the Dakota Lakes farm, Beck studied reduced tillage and crop rotations at the South Dakota State University James Valley Research and Extension Center near Redfield in northeastern South Dakota in the 1980s. Typically spring wheat country, Beck's research showed no-till systems with diverse rotations could fit high water-use crops like corn into spring wheat. Ditto for soybeans, which are now a staple in that area.

About this time, Mark Stiegelmeier, Selby, South Dakota, began dabbling with a precursor to no-till. “We planted some grain sorghum using a Concord air seeder,” he says. Although the knives used by the air seeder disturbed the soil much more than today's no-till units, it was a start.

“The thing that really drove me to do it was soil conservation,” says Stiegelmeier. “We were doing wheat-fallow, which was typical for this area. We were trying flax strips for erosion control, but we got tired of watching the soil blow.”

There were drawbacks to air seeding, though. “I felt we were basically replanting weed seeds with the air seeder,” he says. “If we wanted to do a preplant herbicide option, we moved too much soil and broke the herbicide barrier.”

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