Thanks, neighbor, for adding to our land

Farm Forum

Circumstances have delayed planting for us this year. With the cold conditions, some of our fields are still quite wet. One of the reasons may be because we utilize no-till cropping methods in our fields.

For at least 25 years, Dale’s been using no-till farming practices, and he feels the fields have benefited along with getting better yields. Although the fields don’t look as tidy when the crop goes in, the benefits are there, especially in conserving moisture. In a year like this, the soil doesn’t warm up as quickly which is one of those things that is a trade off.

When Dale and I checked some of the fields this spring, we couldn’t help but notice that we had more soil on one field than we did the year before. We hadn’t bought more land. But we did see that the neighboring land had been tilled so that the soil was black. During the winter months, there was no residue to catch the snow or to keep the Dakota winds from picking up tiny pieces of soil and depositing them in mini-drifts on our land. The amount at one time wasn’t much, but by the time we checked in April, the fine silt was now part of our field.

To us, that again emphasized the importance of no-till methods. A survey from the South Dakota Natural Resources Conservation Service revealed that South Dakota farmers are leaders when it comes to caring for the land. The 2013 Cropping Systems Inventory divulged that no-till practices were being utilized on 45% of the state’s cropland (more than 6.2 million acres), up from 37% (4.8 million acres) in 2004. That’s a 29% increase in acreage from less than a decade ago.

In 2004, South Dakota had four counties with no-till adoption rates of over 75%. But in 2013, the state had 14. In Brown County, the rate remains unchanged, between 25 and 50 percent.

A map shows that most of the increase is along the Missouri River. But there are also substantial increases West River, including Harding County in the north and Shannon County in the south. Part of that may be influenced by the work done under the direction of Dwayne Beck at the Dakota Lakes Research Farm. It was great to tour the facility a few year’s back to see the methods being developed. Beck said that one of the best indicators of soil health is to check for earthworms. Leaving residue in the soil improves the habitat for the wriggling creatures and they in turn provide great benefits by burrowing and mixing the soil. Last time I looked, our earthworms are still not moving as the soil is still pretty cold.

Many in our state are familiar with no-till and some don’t think it provides any benefits. For some soil types, that certainly is the case. In years when there is a lack of moisture, we can see the evidence in our yields. By minimally disturbing the soil, roots and residue are left behind to build the soil’s organic matter. That helps minimizing erosion, reducing runoff, conserving moisture and capturing carbon, which improves overall soil health and productivity.

No-till doesn’t work for everyone. As the survey indicates, different geography and climate present different challenges. But more importantly, the survey demonstrates that in less than a decade, there has been a substantial increase in the number of farmers who have successfully implemented conservation practices on the land.

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A caller this week took time from checking cattle to suggest that every time the traders sell a 10,000-bushel contract of grain, the traders should pay into the checkoff funds. “Sometimes those contracts are traded 10 or 12 times a month and that’s what creates the volatility in our market. If a little of that money went in a fund to do research and to promote grains, maybe that would slow down the artificial ups and downs in the market. Otherwise, the checkoff programs should be left alone.”