Hard lessons learned: Revisiting cover for drought and flood resiliency

Pete Bauman
SDSU Extension Range Field Specialist

As the summer winds down and leads into the fall, it seems that our growing season never really became normal. Wetness has persisted, resulting in a season of unplanted fields and some angst about how the fall harvest will go in those fields that did get planted. Surface runoff and field tiles are creating seemingly huge fluctuations in flows whenever it rains. Even the small creek in my pasture, normally dry in August, has remained at a muddy high flow all summer due to upstream surface runoff and tiling. Others have pastures that have remained inaccessible, and water is prevalent in areas that have been dry land; at least in recent memory. And how short our memories can be! It wasn’t long ago we were praying for rain, remember? Ironically, according to a recent USDA report, the nation has over 19 million acres of land that went unplanted this year, mostly due to too much rain. Ironic to say the least.

Here in Watertown, the National Weather Service data indicates that we are about 10 inches above average on precipitation for this time of year, which is no doubt significant and challenging. I know of only one producer who was able to put up hay that didn’t get rained on. But what should be more concerning is that we have an agricultural system that is built on the ‘average’ of our weather, which in most years is never average. Normal weather hasn’t been normal for a long time…and most agree that our weather events are generally more extreme. Unfortunately, we’ve narrowed our land management toward expectations of average as we artificially move water off of and on to the landscape. Sometimes it works, but lately any fluctuation from the middle in terms of dry or wet cycles seems to wreak havoc. These are hard and painful lessons, but there are steps we can take toward a long-term solution.

Step 1: Retain what we have. High commodity prices can lead to poor land use decisions. We saw that happen from 2007 through about 2015 or so, when significant CRP and native grassland acres in South Dakota went under the plow and a large number of wetlands were tiled and drained. By some estimates, our land conversion rates might be the highest in the nation. Compare that to the hard fact that South Dakota also now leads the nation in prevent plant acres at nearly 4 million (20 percent of all acres reported). How many of those recently converted acres now sit unplanted and would have been better left in permanent grassland and wetland cover? I don’t know the answer, but it’s a question worth considering.

Conversion of grasslands and wetlands creates a one-two punch. Not only do we sacrifice significant soil infiltration and retention when grasslands are destroyed, we also sacrifice huge amounts of long-term storage capacity without the wetland ‘sponges’ we so desperately need to control water from rolling downstream through our communities at such alarming rates. The solution to our water, economic, and infrastructure concerns will not be found in more conversion, drainage, or tiling. That is becoming increasingly obvious.

Step 2: Build back what we can. We can lament the loss of grasslands and wetlands, and we should take these lessons seriously. But, dwelling on the problem without seeking solutions isn’t helpful. So, how do we move forward and reinstate resiliency. The solution lies in a reversal of our actions. Although we cannot fully rebuild the biology of our native grassland and wetland communities, we can restore most of the functionality in the form of water cycling, livestock forage, and habitat. Such investment can lead healthy economic returns that include grass-based enterprises such as grazing livestock, hay production, or recreation.

How? First seek help from the appropriate resources. Government agencies exist by the people and for the people, so take advantage of the resources they offer. Not all agencies can accommodate all projects, but organizations like FSA, NRCS, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and South Dakota Game, Fish, and Parks have a variety of options to help landowners start and maintain the process of land restoration with economic benefit. Private conservation groups like Ducks Unlimited and Pheasants Forever have local programs and staff ready to assist with incorporation of a multitude of programs. In some instances, more focused organizations like The Nature Conservancy, Audubon, or Northern Prairies Land Trust can assist certain landowners in short or long term conservation goals. Finally, education outlets such as SDSU Extension and the South Dakota Grassland Coalition can provide resources, tools, techniques, and mentorship in partnership with all the groups previously listed.

So, if you are wondering how to adjust your operation to become more profitable with your existing grassland and wetland acres or if you are considering a return to perennial cover, seek help and support from these resources. Also, don’t forget to look across the fence. If you are intrigued by a neighbor, ask questions. Or maybe, attend a field day, tour, or workshop. Over 40 grass-based education options were offered in South Dakota this past summer, take advantage of those affordable options!

Let’s all pray for a successful and safe harvest for all producers in the coming months.