S.D. research farm is great ground for learning

Farm Forum

PIERRE (AP) – On a cloudy and somewhat rainy June Saturday, people from two separate languages are bonding over common ground – a different way of doing agriculture.

About 40 farmers from France came via flight to Minneapolis-St. Paul and then through North Dakota and Montana on a bus to the Dakota Lakes Research Farm, 18 miles east of Pierre. As no-till farmers in their home country, they came to learn more about how South Dakota farmers grow crops in difficult weather conditions unique to the middle of North America.

They are proof of one thing that has become clear over the years: The Dakota Lakes Research Farm, now in its 24th season, is great ground for learning.

But the visitors from farms around the region – and around the world – have come to recognize manager Dwayne Beck and his work at Dakota Lakes as revolutionary. It’s not an exaggeration to say they swear by it.

What is most interesting is the timing for Dakota Lakes, which is at an interesting time in its existence. It has been innovative for much of the time since 1990. Now, stakeholders are trying to make sure that continues by doing what they’ve done from the beginning: innovating.

To understand Dakota Lakes’ purpose, back up three weeks in time. In mid-May, nine farmers from as far away as Mobridge and Mitchell joined for a regular meeting of Dakota Lakes’ board of directors. Largely on the agenda is conversation about the new shop facility that is going up on the northwest edge of the farm.

The farmers themselves own Dakota Lakes. They own the land and most of the equipment, while their research partner, South Dakota State University, pays the salary of Beck and two other employees. Between the two parties there’s a lot of give and take as far as what the farm will work on for solutions.

“A lot of the ideas come from when (farmers) run into something out and about and they’ll come to me and ask ‘What do you think about this?'” Beck told the Capital Journal. “And I’ll get enough calls from farmers where I’ll start to look into it.”

That’s not to say that Beck doesn’t come up with things to work on for the farm.

“I dream of stuff too,” Beck said, laughing.

Both the university and the farmers have a stake in the primary goal of the farm: the research.

The most famous of that research has been the farm’s work with no-till farming.

“We’ve been no-tilling for 25 years and it’s changed the whole dynamic for our farm,” said Leo Vojta, of Glenham, who is the president of the board of directors. “They’re not even the same soils we had 25 years ago. The organic matter has doubled and our productivity has increased.”

That’s what the farmers from France are here to see and what will bring people to Dakota Lakes later in the year. A group from Kazakhstan came to Pierre in late June to visit with Beck about growing in arid areas and groups from Italy and Argentina are scheduled to be in the area. For good measure, a group from Kansas and Nebraska will be in the area later this summer. Not to mention the farm’s annual field day and wheat walks, proof that a little outreach has gone a long way.

Some of the attraction is Beck himself. Inducted into the South Dakota Hall of Fame in 2007, he’s a pioneer in the no-till world. Because he’s been invited to agricultural conferences here and there, he has traveled around the world to see what’s cutting edge. Farmers associated with Dakota Lakes are grateful to have his expertise.

“I don’t know how you can be half-fabricator, half-agronomist, half-teacher,” said board member Mike Arnoldy of Kennebec. “He’s a lot of halfs.”

But some of the farmers who have worked with Dakota Lakes say the impact is far-reaching. All of them unequivocally say Beck’s work has transformed how they operate now.

“You’ve got elevators that are popping up everywhere,” said Arnoldy, who said yields have nearly tripled since he first started farming. “We’re filling up 100-car trains. We were never filling up 100-car trains in this part of the country. You have agronomy centers popping up all over. I’m not going to say it was all Dakota Lakes, but it certainly was the start and it sped things along.”

For the farmers who aren’t involved with Dakota Lakes, there’s a lot of looking over the fence happening. Beck delivers the information, which trickles down through Dakota Lakes members and down to their neighbors.

“That’s part of why we’re here is because we’ve never been afraid to ask questions,” said board member Dan Forgey.

It has been a generational change to no-till in South Dakota. Forgey, who farms near Gettysburg said many young farmers don’t have any idea that it hasn’t always been this way among producers in the state.

“They think we’ve been doing this forever,” Forgey said.

Forgey tells the story of years ago when he was having a hard time figuring out where to put sunflowers in his fields.

“We wanted our corn on winter wheat stubble and our sunflowers on winter wheat stubble,” Forgey said. “And Dwayne said ‘Why don’t you put your sunflowers on corn stalks.’ They both benefit each other.”

“People laughed at us up there. The next year we had two fields and now every acre of sunflowers in Sully and Potter County has planted sunflowers on corn stalks. That all came from Dwayne.”

Beck wants Dakota Lakes to become a “zero net energy” facility by 2026.

That means the building will produce as much energy as it took to build it. Beck is very confident that can happen and he’s relying on technology to take the farm into a more economically friendly future. The new building will be heated and cooled from numerous sources, including solar, wind and biomass, and it will be insulated with biologically based foam. Beck indicated the energy will be stored in a boiler system and released through in-floor heating.

The 60-by-80-foot addition will store the station’s equipment for maintenance and fabrication, while the current main structure will be focused on the station’s oil pressing facility and to create classroom space.

Envisioning a building that would make sense on a farm or ranch, Beck said it would be essential that the building can operate without constant monitoring. To that end, he said it should be able to run for two days without needing any outside charges once all the technology is in place. The building will also be fitted for cooling with absorption coolers on the system, which operate similarly to air conditioners.

Like the rest of the farm, Beck wants this to be part of the future for buildings on farms and ranches in the area.

“You can do things in a laboratory or a plot and that’s fine, but until you try it on a large scale, you don’t really know what you have and how it will work,” Beck said.

Another major project for Dakota Lakes is to make advances with their oil pressing facility, which involves cold pressing soybeans, canola, sunflower and flax oil. Experiments are going on now with the extracts from the pressing but the hope is that farm machinery will continue to advance to the point where the oil can burn in tractors. There’s continued work to be done on electric drives in corn planters to limit drive chains.

“Some things work, some things don’t,” Vojta said.

“It’s research we don’t have to do on our farm and mistakes we don’t have to make,” he said before a good chuckle. “If you look at farming in the western 60 percent of South Dakota, the farming practices have come through here. Everything we’re doing now started with Dwayne and his research at this farm years ago.”