Dakota Lakes Research Farm marks 25th year with field tour

Farm Forum

Dorn Barnes credits the work at Dakota Lakes research Farm – and particularly soil scientist Dwayne Beck – as a main reason he’s still a farmer.

Things weren’t going well for Barnes back in the mid-1990s – crops weren’t doing well and prices weren’t great and he wasn’t long for farming, he said.

Then he heard Beck’s pitch for no-till farming.

“First thing Dwayne made me do, he said, ” sell all your tillage equipment, or the first thing you will do when it doesn’t go well, is start using it again,'” Barnes said earlier this month at the 25th anniversary gathering at the farm, 17 miles east of Pierre.

Beck had it pegged, Barnes said. He did sell his tillage equipment. And about the third year, the no-till thing seemed to have made things worse. But he stuck it out and the fourth year was the charm, Barnes said. “By the fourth year, the soil had mellowed out,” Barnes said and the no-till methods began to pay off.

Now he looks back and says, if it wasn’t for Beck and his message of no-till farming, “I probably wouldn’t be farming,” Barnes said.

That was a common theme as about 60 supporters of the Dakota Lakes Research Farm gathered to celebrate its founding 25 years ago, with a tour of fields, a meal and short remarks.

It’s a cooperative, with farmers owning the 840-acre farm managed by scientist Beck who is on staff with South Dakota State University.

Beck is internationally known for promoting no-till farming and he took a couple wagons of people around to show the fruits. It shows up on the way soil comes up out of the ground in the roots of plants, he said. And he has a good model, he said: a grassy field that shows “17,000 years of no-till,” native plants that never have been plowed under since left by glacial action.

Earlier this year, the farm received a $1 million check from the Howard G. Buffet Foundation in Decatur, Illinois. A farmer, Buffet gives away millions every year to support sustainable agricultural research.

Beck says the money is being directed so far to three projects:

One is a seed-coating study to find ways that cover crops can be easily planted just by spreading them across fields already standing with, say, wheat. It could be a better, more sustainable way to suppress weeds and provide food for the soil and animals, such as ducks and pheasants, with little muss or fuss, even from the air, maybe.

A second initiative is integrating livestock back into crop production, after a segregation between the two naturally complementary operations began in American agriculture about 50 years ago. Using new technology that could allow farmers to move cattle pasture pens automatically might do the trick, via cell phones and satellite links.

A third project starts out more as a social experiment: how to find the best ways and means to plant the best plants on public lands such as road ditches, parks and federal lands that will help wildlife, keep the soils healthy and perhaps provide biomass for ethanol production in better ways than using crop residue from farm fields. His first step will “just getting everyone in the same room,” Beck said of highway, agriculture and federal parks people to talk about what works for everyone.

Those projects aim to meet Buffet’s brief requirement, that his grant be used for “something you aren’t already doing,” Beck said.

Meanwhile, Beck is working to get state officials to create another scientist position at Dakota Lakes Research Farm.

He’s the only scientist and has three full-time technicians, as well as graduate students who usually spend two years during their college careers working on Farm projects.

“And I’m a little over-taxed,” he said. Beck also is nearing retirement age, so he figures state officials at SDSU and the Legislature might want someone around who is familiar with the farm if someone else is going to take over its management.

The earliest such a position could be created would be July 1, 2016, he said.

Whoever might be hired for the role would be learning from the best. Dwayne Beck was initiated into the South Dakota Hall of Fame in 2007 for his work in no-till farming.