Counting the costs: Land-use decisions are increasingly driven by science |

Counting the costs: Land-use decisions are increasingly driven by science

Though drifts are a common sight around South Dakota homesteads, in present-day they’re usually snow, rather than dirt, as in these photos from the 1930s. Photo courtesy SD NRCS.

The mention of the Dust Bowl evokes images of drifted dirt, barren landscapes, suffocating dust in the air, and ruined crops, livelihoods, and desperate families. With modern day farming practices and conservation efforts, it appears farmers and ranchers have learned from the days when blowing dirt spelled disaster.

Science and technology continues to give farmers and ranchers tools to enhance productivity and sustainability, while reducing erosion and improving soil—winning concepts all the way around.

Dr. David Clay, professor of soil science at South Dakota State University, has been collecting data over three time intervals, 2006, 2011, and 2014 at locations across Nebraska and South Dakota. Using high-resolution remote-sensing data sets made available by the federal government, the research team identified land uses at 80,000 points. By comparing the data over three time intervals, the team was able to determine land use changes.

The team compared the land use changes with the suitability of the land for cropland and what they found was a fair amount of conversion but, more interesting to Clay, was the small amount of conversion on land suitable for crop production.

Clay said that a Wyoming researcher, Dr. Benjamin Rashford, said in a published paper (Cons. Biol. 25:276-284) that based on results from an economic model, “nearly 12.1 million ha (30 million acres) could be converted by 2011” in the Prairie Pothole region of the northern Great Plains. The Prairie Pothole region contains portions of North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, and Montana. However, these potential estimates were much higher than the 1.3 million acres that Dr. Wright and Dr. Wimberly (PNAS 110:4134-4139) reported to have been converted from grasslands to corn and soybean production for the entire states of North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Minnesota, and Iowa.

“As opposed to what people oftentimes ask, ‘how many acres are being converted?’ I think a better question is how come so little land is converted when we had a period of time when people would have captured a lot of economic benefit?” Clay said.

During the time period from 2006 to 2012, commodity prices for corn, wheat, and soybeans nearly doubled, but most suitable land was not converted. Following the drought in South Dakota in 2012, data suggests that cropland was returned to grassland.

All of this, Clay said, suggests that the lessons of dry years have been learned and that farmers are working hard to not repeat history. Farmers should do what has worked historically on their farm, he said, and they should be mindful of the lessons learned at the kitchen table by older generations.

During and prior to the Dust Bowl, Clay said, farmers were creating a fine mulch on the surface of the soil, thinking this would prevent moisture loss. However, the soil was made more erodible. Mixed with drought and high winds, the Dust Bowl images marked one of the darkest times for agriculture.

Reducing tillage through no-till practices in semi-arid areas has been successful, he said, protecting soil to some extent. Clay said he would exercise caution when converting lands that are at a high risk for erosion and initial research results suggest that farmers are moving forward conservatively.

Recent years have seen about a 25 percent increase in soil carbon levels in South Dakota soil tests. In the Dust Bowl, extensive tillage greatly reduced soil carbon levels but this increase, he said, is indicative of the very different position farmers are now in.

Although this is all positive, the risks that led to the Dust Bowl still exist, including high climate variability, risk of erosion, and other factors.

Economics aside, land use is also driven by demand, successful crop rotations, and often, availability of crop insurance. Drought also serves as a driver. During the drought, Clay said, people were selling cattle rather than feeding them to reduce grazing requirements, a practice Jim Faulstich has seen over the years.

Faulstich, owner operator of Daybreak Ranch in Highmore, S.D., keeps in mind an old bit of wisdom regarding land use. When it comes to land in areas where drought is a major consideration, Faulstich abides by the adage, “farm the best, conserve the rest.”

He is a member of the South Dakota Grassland Coalition, a group of private landowners who strive to promote ranching practices that encourage sustainability and profitability. The group touts healthy grasslands as a step toward maintaining and improving water quality by decreasing runoff and flooding. Drought planning is something the group heavily advocates in tandem with other concepts to help sustain through a drought.

“(We advocate) taking a holistic approach, being diversified and diversity is a huge thing for us whether it’s in the plant community in our pastures, in a seeding for those who farm and their rotation, even enterprise diversity, so we don’t have all of our eggs in one basket,” he said.

Faulstich acknowledged the driving force commodity prices can play on land-use decisions but cites drought plans as an economic boost for his operation.

“If I were in the lending industry, I would require a drought plan from my customers because I feel it’s that important,” he said. “Drought is not unusual, it’s not the first time, and it’s getting to be a regular occurrence. To be prepared for it is huge.”

The Drought Monitor from the University of Nebraska at Lincoln is a resource for those tracking drought conditions and offers information for the entire region and worldwide. The worldwide data is useful as markets and commodity prices are predicted.

Predictions and planning often come together in drought plans. South Dakota State University published a study that draws a direct correlation between April moisture and the pounds of beef produced for the year.

“We want to have a year’s worth of forage on the ranch at all times or enough moisture we know it will grow that year,” Faulstich said.

It is this combination of forage and moisture that triggers dates contained within a drought plan. These dates begin the fall previous and outline actions to be taken based upon how dry conditions are and how far into the year the dry conditions are being experienced.

The National (NRCS) Drought Tool evaluates the capabilities to predict forage production in areas. For example, by July 1 with normal moisture, what percentage of forage can be produced.

Faulstich custom-grazes yearling steers and heifers and has an agreement with the cattle owners that outlines the removal of the cattle from grass, with a two-week notice, based upon conditions. He calls it a flexibility tool that can be utilized. Additionally, multiple CRP plantings are maintained to be released on trigger dates for additional forage. Other tools are early weaning calves and a list of cows that can be moved or sold immediately.

Faulstich said the number of grassland acres currently being converted to farm ground isn’t as dramatic as it once was when grain prices were considerably higher.

“It’s definitely one of the drivers,” he said. “The other thing is every time we go through one of these major droughts, people are forced to reduce their cowherds. Especially if they’re an older owner/operator without someone new to come into the operation, every time we see a major drought and a reduction of total cow numbers, if you were to look at the mass records of cow numbers, I will suggest in South Dakota, for sure, there is a direct correlation between number of cows and amount of ground that is taken out of grass.”

As owner/operators are faced with land-use decisions, Faulstich said land capabilities ought to be the number one consideration. He admits the temptation to get caught up in profitability is strong but recommends looking long-term at what is best for the land.

The economics, he said, show that converting lower quality ground–not necessarily from the standpoint of growing grass but from the standpoint of crop production–can be complicated. For example, on the Faulstich’s ranch, there are wetlands that are poorly suited for farming but, in a dry year, were able to produce grass and be productive. The value of these seasonal wetlands is factored into the ranch’s drought planning.

“They have a huge value to us,” he said. “I’ll take all the wetlands somebody wants to get rid of because they can be very productive.”