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Dust Bowl V.2: Hot, Dry Conditions Create Domino Effect

The dust has settled, but for how long no one can be sure. At any moment, the winds may blow, moving the topsoil -- soil that took Mother Nature generations to craft -- even farther from its origin.

One farmer reckons that precious topsoil, native to his farm in Kearny County, Kansas, now sits in a field at least 200 miles away, blown there by the relentless winds of March and April 2014.

Affecting counties in western Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas, and eastern Colorado, was reminiscent of what folks in the same region faced 80 years ago.

“There were several days we couldn’t see 100 yards in front of us,” says Tom Hauser, a farmer near Ulysses, Kansas. “”We didn’t know where the dust was coming from. It was moving in here from somewhere else, just like it did back in the 1930s.”

Wind-blown topsoil is partially to blame for traffic accidents that claimed five lives near Liberal, Kansas, in March.

Just like her ancestors, Marieta Hauser hung wet towels on the windows to keep the dirt from entering the house.

The combination of high winds and long-term drought have had a dramatic effect not just on the landscape of these fragile soils but also on the psyche of its inhabitants. In the last decade, Hauser has had four failed wheat crops due to drought; this year looks to be another.

Since the beginning of 2014, the average maximum daily wind speed in Syracuse, Kansas, is 50.6 miles per hour, according to the Kansas State University Weather Data Library. In that same time, Syracuse has received just 1 inch of total precipitation.

That is a recipe for disaster.

“I’ve had to chisel more ground this year than the last 20 years put together,” says Gary Millershaski, who farms near Lakin in Kearny County. Chiseling the ground roughs it up, and helps prevent soil from blowing – at least for a little while.

Like many western Kansas farmers, Millershaski uses no-till to preserve moisture. Theoretically, crop residue covers the soil, protecting it from blowing. When there is no rain, however, there is no crop, and certainly no crop residue.

“In 2013, we raised 16-bushel-per-acre wheat, which is about half our annual county average,” Millershaski says. “I wanted to keep the stubble intact, so I used a stripper-header. I sprayed it a couple of times to keep the weeds down, but it totally blew out. We just didn’t raise enough residue last year.”

Last August, Millershaski received 5 inches of rain. But even that much-needed precipitation came with a cost: the rain prompted kochia to grow, and when the wind began to blow, it blew the uprooted weeds all over the countryside. Uprooted kochia plants loosened the soil, another cause of the blowing dust. And when one field begins to blow, it is like a domino effect.

Still, Hauser says farmers are using better conservation methods than their forefathers did. “There are very few farmers using sweep plows anymore. The last thing we want to do is run any tillage equipment,” he says. Millershaski agrees. “We’re in much better shape now than in the ’30s because we don’t use moldboard plows and on-way plows. Our farming practices are pretty good for the most part. But we still require moisture,” he says.

There are other reasons why the dust has blown this spring. Tom Flowers, a retired soil conservationist from Meade, Kansas, theorizes that today’s farmers have forgotten what their forefathers went through during the 1930s Dust Bowl.

“When prices go up, a lot of young farmers will look at a field of grass, whether it was old soil bank or Great Plains, and think it would be good farmground. So they break it out, and they have all the old problems their ancestors had,” Flowers says.

In his nearly 30-year career in Meade County, Flowers saw many farmers switch from conventional tillage to no-till. But by itself, no-till is just a tool. Farmland still needs rain, and growing-season rains in the region just haven’t happened.

Meanwhile, modern semi-dwarf wheat varieties have less straw to protect the soil, and dryland farmers are reducing fallow periods to get two crops every three years, rather than two out of every four. Many farmers have let Conservation Reserve Program contracts expire and have resumed farming those fragile lands. Shelterbelts – one of the conservation mainstays following the 1930s Dust Bowl – are being ripped out and farmed. Wheat used to be the main crop in the region; now farmers prefer to grow corn, which requires much more moisture to deliver a crop.

Finally, last year, Abengoa opened the doors to a new biomass ethanol plant in Grant County, Kansas. One source of seedstock for this prototype plant? Crop residue.

“Far be it from me to tell a farmer how to pay his bills, but they need to look at long-term conservation, not short-term profits,” Flowers says.

For his part, Millershaski will devote some of his acres to strip-cropping, in which he will alternate rows of feed with rows of fallow. However, that won’t pay the bills, so this spring, he planted dryland corn. “You still have to try to raise a crop,” he says.  

Still, it could be worse.

“We don’t have the dust storms day after day like folks did in the 1930s,” says Marieta Hauser. “It blew for six days in a row in April, and I can see how folks were going crazy during the Dust Bowl.”

The Great American Desert

When the first explorers came through the High Plains of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Colorado, they called it “The Great American Desert.”

“Many people said it could never be farmed,” says Otis Molz, a farmer near Deerfield, Kansas. As the railroads moved westward, the area was promoted as a vast garden, and people were urged to settle the High Plains.

After World War I, the federal government encouraged farmers to grow wheat by supporting wheat prices. Land that had been native grass for generations was broken out in order to plant wheat. The soil was extremely fertile, albeit fragile, says Gary Millershaski, a farmer near Lakin, Kansas. Moldboard plows and one-way plows – oft-blamed for the Dust Bowl of the 1930s – have since given way to no-till farming.

“There is a place for agriculture out here, but we need to adjust to this shift in weather, before it is too late,” Millershaski says.

“If the weather cooperates, this area is rich farmland,” Molz says. “But when it is dry, none of it can be farmed.”

Cows are hungry

Drought and dust storms have not just affected crop producers. Ranchers in the High Plains are reducing their herds to compensate for the terrible shape of the area’s pastures.

Long-term drought reduces the root mass of native grasses, which negatively impacts forage quality and quantity, says Tom Flowers, retired soil conservationist from Meade, Kansas. “Ranchers know they should be decreasing stocking rates,” Flowers explains, “but oftentimes their bankers want them to put as many cattle on grass as possible. And it is that way from western Kansas all the way to the front range of the Rocky Mountains.”

For three years, Tom White has avoided stocking native grass pastures in the western Kansas sandhills, just because there is no grass available.

“We have a giant wreck, and I don’t believe USDA is addressing the problem,” Flowers says. “I’ve been called out by farmers to where grass used to be, and now it is all dead. It is horrible to see these farmers suffering, and they are not getting any help.”

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