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Q & A: Dwayne Beck, Dakota Lakes Research Farm

A winter wheat-fallow mix and energy-intensive irrigated corn weren’t cutting it when Dwayne Beck began managing the Dakota Lakes Research Farm near Pierre in central South Dakota in the early 1990s. Today, the arid region sports a cornucopia of annual crops including corn, soybeans, wheat, field peas, canola, garbanzo beans, lentils, and more. This shift led to a regional agricultural revenue boost from 1990 to 2009 of $1.123 billion.

This systems approach used by Beck and area farmers revamped the area’s agriculture by boosting soil carbon levels and also by better managing water and nutrients. Successful Farming magazine recently visited with Beck about some of the things he and area farmers are doing at the Dakota Lakes Research Farm. 

SF: Is the systems approach used at the Dakota Lakes Research Farm applicable to other areas, such as the Corn Belt?  

DB: Yes. I’m showing a slide at meetings that compares what tillage is to agriculture vs. what fracking is to petroleum. In both instances, a resource is broken apart to extract a resource. Whatever is extracted – organic matter, minerals, or oil – is degraded. We can’t continue to do that in agriculture. Farming as we do it right now is not regenerative. 

SF: Isn’t the Corn Belt rotation of corn and soybeans sufficient?  

DB: This whole corn and soybean thing is about shot. If we go down the road of more intensification, we will keep having more issues with weed resistance, water quality problems, air quality problems – all kinds of problems.  

Systems are needed to properly cycle water and nutrients and to capture energy. We need to figure out how to optimize things so that soils are not too wet or dry and don’t have salinity problems.

SF: So is no-till enough?

DB: No-till, diverse crop rotations, and cover crops are only tools – not goals. They’re tools we use for holistic land management.

We also need to  get perennial grasses back into the system. That is what my grandfather and your grandfather did. They would farm a field for a while and then stick it back into perennial grasses for a few years. 

SF: How do you make money from perennial grasses? 

DB: You need livestock on the land as part of the complete system. In the next two years, we are working to build robotic grazing cells, where cows can be moved without having to build fences.

We are also starting a project over the next two years in highway right-of-way areas. We will be switching road ditches from bromegrass to big bluestem and switchgrass for cellulosic ethanol.

SF: Can’t cellulosic ethanol be made from cornstalks? 

DB: When you take corn grain off a field, you take one half to one third of the carbon you fixed that year off the field. Now, we want to take off more carbon by removing the cornstalk residue? Soil organic matter levels are  one half of what they once were in Iowa. Every study indicates that when residue is taken off the field, it just degrades the soil.

SF: How can a systems approach used at Dakota Lakes Research Farm be adopted in other regions? 

DB: Back in the 1960s, the  Russians were way ahead us in the space race. President Kennedy didn’t say, “We’ll just put a little money here, and a little money there.” He said, instead, “We are going to the moon.”

Agriculture needs to do something like that. We need to develop a system that won’t pollute water, won’t pollute the air, and won’t degrade soils. We can do it. It is just a matter of having the commitment to do it.

SF Bio

Name: Dwayne Beck, manager of the Dakota Lakes Research Farm near Pierre, South Dakota. 

Background: Beck grew up on a farm near Platte, South Dakota. He taught high school science at Gettysburg, South Dakota, before earning his doctorate at South Dakota State University. He managed the James Valley Research Farm at Redfield in northeastern South Dakota in the 1980s prior to managing the Dakota Lakes Research Farm. At James Valley, Beck developed farming systems that propelled soybeans into crop rotations for the area’s farmers. He was inducted into the South Dakota Hall of Fame in 2007.

Latest project: Dakota Lakes Research Farm aims to be fossil fuel neutral by 2020. This entails using solar and wind energy, as well as using biofuels from crushing canola grown on the farm.

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