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

Bill Spiegel 05/15/2014 @ 10:48am I grew up in north-central Kansas, and am the Fourth Generation to maintain and manage our farm; we grow wheat, soybeans and grain sorghum. I'm a 1993 graduate of Kansas State University in ag communications.

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.

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