Dirty snow: Revealing Jim Kopriva’s simple solution to soil erosion

Farm Forum

Jim Kopriva and his son Lee ranch in an area of northeastern South Dakota called the “Coteau des Prairies” or prairie hills. This hummocky topography rises sharply above the level James River lowlands to the west and the Minnesota and Red river lowlands to the east. Scientists say that although glacial ice sheets overrode this highlands region, its stature was sufficiently influential to deflect the main masses of ice, creating calmer landscapes flanking the coteau. Up on the hills, where the Koprivas run 400 head of Black Angus cattle on almost 3,000 acres of grass and prairie, the land is decently fertile, but it also contains enough rock and roll to have dissuaded grain farming until recently.

Just ten years ago the Koprivas’ approach to agriculture – raising cattle on grasslands – was a dominant element of this landscape, and ranching used to be the linchpin agricultural enterprise in these parts. That’s rapidly changing now, as many of their neighbors are plucking stones and plowing virgin sod to sow corn. For the first time, significant tracts of coteau country are being converted from ranching to farming, and many thousands of acres formerly growing perennial grasses are now growing annual grains.

In late winter we tour the area, and Jim proudly showed off his fields of grassy pasture and prairie. He stopped to point out living snow fences, rotational pastures, restored ponds and wetlands. He is especially pleased with his strategies to keep snow, snow melt and rainfall on his land.

Across the road was a new corn field that was fall-tilled. There were no protective cover crops on this vulnerable ground where the wind blows strong and the weather ranges from snowy or wet to sunny and dry in a one-week span.

The contrast was stark. Jim’s lush land held clean snow, and it glimmered icy and white in the mid-day sun. The tilled land was fringed by roadside snow drifts laced with heavy black streaks. There were mounds of dark powder and sprays and swirls of wind-blown soil across the white ground. “There’s the evidence that tillage is causing severe soil erosion,” he sighed.

The rate of converting virgin prairie and grasslands to grain-growing fields on the Northern Plains has exploded in recent years. In one five-year period, from 2006 to 2011, approximately 1.3 million acres of grasslands in western reaches of the Corn belt region were plowed to grow grains. Much of that activity happened in eastern South Dakota, particularly the coteau region where the Koprivas care-take grasslands they rent and own. Last year the Koprivas grew grain on only 131 acres, and not one single acre was subjected to any form of tillage.

It’s impossible to know how much land is being regularly tilled – Jim suggests as much as 80% of the farmland in eastern South Dakota – but irrespective of the exact amount it is clear that the practice has regained popularity after a decade or so has passed since many farmers actually boasted they were employing conservation techniques by using no-till practices.

Today’s farmers and ranchers are told that fall tillage helps soil crumble over winter because of frosting and defrosting, which allows them to prepare – through more tilling – a smoother, pulverized seed bed for spring planting. The heavy machinery increasingly used by farmers causes tremendous compaction of the ground, and tillage helps break up soils suffering from such treatment. Producers are also told that spring soils warm faster and dry sooner if fall tillage is performed.

The Koprivas transitioned from conventional tillage practices 15 years ago to no-till on all of their land today. “We leave a cover on all our ground,” Jim explained. “There’s no place on any of my land where you can look down and see dirt.” That approach coincides with his belief that perennial grasslands are superior to annual grains to maintain healthy land. “The best use of our land is in grass and hay production because we don’t have to re-establish the root system every year,” he said. “Native grasses can last forever. The pastures we plant will last as long as we take care of them.”

Relying on perennial plants not only precludes the need for plowing and tillage, as mature prairie blocks weeds from taking hold, it also means a greatly reduced need for fertilizers and herbicides. When necessary, the Koprivas use controlled burns to control undesirable plants. Less erosion and fewer chemicals means a dramatically diminished pollution threat to surface and underground water sources as well as enhanced protections for soil health. “I view soil as a living thing,’’ Jim stated. “I’m in the business of protecting healthy soil.”

At the Koprivas’ ranch cattle graze pastures that contain diverse growth, including dozens of different grass species. “Diversity,” declared Jim, “is what gives our operation strength. We need to bring diversity back into agriculture.”

Jim was recently appointed to the board of directors for the South Dakota Grasslands Coalition, an organization that educates farmers and ranchers about the benefits of grasslands agriculture. “Many farmers and ranchers don’t know how to use grasslands profitably, in a sustainable, ecologically responsible manner,” Jim asserted. “The grasslands coalition is trying to show them how to do that, and explain why it’s important to do it. The world needs grains, but we should be using the land based on the understanding that the soil we use today is pretty much the same soil that must feed the world for the rest of time.”

Peter Carrels is an environmental journalist and writer in Aberdeen, South Dakota.