This is the second in a three-part series exploring the Dust Bowl, how conservation has mitigated drought conditions and the importance of being in tune with the land. 

Plowing and grazing practices in the 1930s worsened the effects of the drought and wind storms that battered the Great Plains during the Dust Bowl years, but one key element could have decreased the devastation – knowledge of the land.

More specifically, knowledge of the soil.

There are more microbes in a teaspoon of soil than there are people on the earth, soil scientists say. And in South Dakota alone there are over 650 types of soil, including one called Houdek that isn’t found anywhere else in the United States.

Houdek and other loam soils cover more than 2 million acres across South Dakota - acres which lie mostly in the eastern half of the state and are often used for crop production.  Loam soil, a mixture of sand, silt and clay, lends itself to agriculture because of its ability to retain nutrients and water while allowing excess to drain away.

However, those characteristics only apply to soil that is healthy.

With so many different soils, and their diverse traits, soil health education is vital, experts say. Variances in precipitation, temperature and parent materials that soil develops from are also key to understanding how to properly manage land, according to Douglas Malo, a distinguished professor of soil science at South Dakota State University.

“East of the Missouri River, everything was primarily under ice and some wind-blown silt. In the west, we have a lot of residual parent materials, where the soil developed right in the bedrock that was exposed,” Malo said. “Because of that, we have many different management systems that we have to employ to keep that soil protected.”

These health management systems include practices such as no-till, planting cover crops and crop rotation and diversity. When these conservation practices are followed, soil becomes healthier, leading to natural resource protection, better infiltration rates and increased production and profit for farmers.  

“Anything we can do to increase the amount of water available to plants is something we want,” Malo said. “Adding organic matter back to the soil and reducing tillage, those kinds of things improve the amount of carbon left in the soil, the soil’s water-holding capacity and the natural fertility of that soil.”

In central South Dakota, no-till adoption has increased from 5 percent in 1986 to 73 percent in 2009, according to a study by South Dakota State University.

While that trend shows progress in soil protection, agricultural researcher Dwayne Beck sees conservation as a complex process that extends far beyond no-till.

“The key to conservation agriculture is mimicking Mother Nature in terms of how nutrients cycle,” said Beck, who manages the Dakota Lakes Research Farm in Pierre. “As farmers, we harvest sunlight, water and carbon dioxide. We pick up a few minerals from the soil, but that’s about it.”

Beck’s farm takes advantage of the native diversity that was common back when Lewis and Clark trekked their way among prairie plants. He also utilizes cover crops, no-till farming, and high and low residue crop rotation in addition to plant diversity.

“When I travel, I look at the native vegetation and that tells me what you can do, what kind of crops you can grow and what your water resources are,” Beck said.

Since the farm came to fruition in 1990, the ground has never been tilled, and not a single insecticide has been sprayed. Instead, Beck focuses on being proactive by encouraging beneficial organisms and replacing summer fallow and tillage with a new rotation of cool season, broad-leaf crops that recharge the moisture in the soil.

At the Dakota Lakes Research Farm, visitors find clean air and water, healthy soil and “happy” microorganisms and animals. Beck knows that the profit of conservation agriculture is important to farmers when choosing whether to invest in new methods and new equipment, and so far he’s noticed that central South Dakota has made a significant transformation over the last 20 years.

“A good share of the guys made this transition from very tillage-based systems to ones that are much more balanced,” Beck said. “I know we’re not there yet. We’re just getting started, but we’ve stopped the bleeding.”

Landowners are not only leaking fewer nutrients, but also less carbon, according to a study led by David Clay, a professor of plant science at South Dakota State University.

Between 1985 and 2010, a team of scientists collected more than 95,000 soil samples from farmers across eastern and central South Dakota. They found that minimum and no-till farming practices have increased the yield potential of the soil and capture carbon in the environment, resulting in a cleaner, more economically vibrant environment.

Carbon has increased 24 percent, while corn yields are 60 percent higher, soybean yields are 19 percent higher and wheat yields are 53 percent higher. These increases have resulted in more than $2 billion in additional sales.

Not a bad incentive for investing in healthy soil.

A variety of soil types means different resources, concerns and farming practices around the state. Local conservation districts, in partnership with organizations like the NRCS, can fill those niches and provide services locally to promote conservation statewide.

The future could be bright for soil – and agriculture – thanks to the programs and organizations that have been dedicated to implementing conservation since the Dirty Thirties.

The NRCS’ latest National Resources Inventory shows that soil erosion on cropland declined by 43 percent during the past 25 years. By saving and conserving millions of tons of topsoil, producers are increasing their yields while making the land more resilient against drought.

“This year is the 75th anniversary of the conservation districts, and it’s the worst drought we’ve had since I’ve been alive,” said Doug Boes, Hughes County Conservation District manager. “We don’t know what next year is going to be like, but we do know that it’ll be better than it was 75 years ago because of the conservation districts and the practices that we’ve partnered to put into place.”

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