Podcast Notebook: Dwayne Beck says livestock are important for healthy soil

Dwayne Beck, former manager of the Dakota Lakes Research Farm near Pierre, SD, has spent 32 years working with northern plains farmers to improve the biology of degraded soils with profitable no-till crop production. In this podcast with Robin “Buz” Kloot, Beck discusses the critical role of livestock on the future of agriculture given lessons from the past.

“Thirty years ago, many farmers had livestock as insurance to mitigate crop failure: this is how I grew up,” says Dwayne Beck of Dakota Lakes Research Farm. “As farm economics became more Farm Bill and Washington D.C.-oriented, the important goals of mimicking the natural ecosystem and cycling nutrients can’t be achieved by farmers without livestock. And I don’t think we can maximize long-term crop yields because our soil won’t be optimized.”

Integrating livestock back into cropping systems is a current focus of the Dakota Lakes Research Farm’s research on crop production systems. The goal is to mimic nature and regenerate nutrients, water and energy.

Early agricultural history shows that few nutrients left the field or local area because they were consumed by livestock and people and returned to the soil. Today, 120-car unit trains haul grain and the nutrients in the grain across states to concentrated feeding operations or to a coastal port where ships export grain and nutrients worldwide. “Those nutrients are not coming back, and we’re decreasing the nutrients in this area. That is a problem,” Beck says.

Export fewer raw materials downstream

“So, if you take the grain and the forage off, you remove nutrients and energy, and there’s nothing left for the soil microbes to eat,” he says. “Put the livestock back eating forage. Now they’re using energy and adding to the soil biology. So, I think that’s part of the answer.”

Beck discusses the benefits of numerous ruminant animals on the land: livestock can add biology to dry and/or frozen soil when soil biological processes are slow; crop diversity also adds soil biology.

“Animals allow us to employ crops that we can’t if we export,” he says. “More crops add diversity, insects and other biology to the soil system. And if we can include deep-rooted perennials that mimic natural ecosystems, we can bring up deep nutrients that would normally escape.”

In some places where it’s more humid, Beck believes growers can grow and use perennials and annuals at the same time. “Like the [pasture cropping] system of Colin Seis in Australia, where perennials and annuals grow at different times of the year.”

The Dakota Lakes research program is expanding into livestock and crop rotations with perennials because it makes a huge difference. “If you look at the virtual field day from 2020 on our website, you can see very clear differences in soil properties, depending on what we did with crop rotation.”

When soil moisture supports a late summer/fall cover crop as a forage for livestock, the benefits are magnified. “The diversity that it adds increases the yield of the corn and soybeans, components of the system,” Beck says. “And it reduces input cost because cover crops stop resistant weeds, reduce cyst nematode issues and other problems because you’ve added crop diversity.”

Ahead of the mindset curve

Beck admits that their research pushes farmers before they are ready to implement change. “Like when we stopped tillage in the late 80s, it took a while for no-till to catch on even though our work was based on sound science,” he says.

While almost 100% uptake of no-till in this area took a long time, we’re ahead of many other areas, Beck believes. “But still, in 30 years, I think we’ve only stopped the bleeding. We haven’t cured the patient. The next step is perennials and livestock integration that is truly regenerative and mimic those natural cycles,” he adds.

Dakota Lakes is working on reintroducing perennial rotations back into the cropping system. “When I grew up, we had perennial grass and alfalfa along with oats for livestock in the crop rotation—that was the soil building phase before the advent of fertilizers,” Beck says. “We’re only five years in on native grass research, some with alfalfa, then rotating with corn, soybeans, pulses, oilseeds, and small grains. Our research with this system will take another 15 years before we get good data—this doesn’t necessarily work well in the university research publish-or-perish world.”

Another valuable piece of research coming sooner, Beck hinted at a potential outcome of significantly reduced phosphorus use when soils are no-tilled and have high biological activity. “We’re now in the fifth year of research, and we almost have enough ammunition to put this out on the big stage,” he says, “same yields with less off-site impacts.”

Brain transplant from Dakota Lakes

Thanks to a no-strings-attached grant from the Howard Buffet Foundation, the Dakota Lakes Research Farm Corporation hired South Dakota native Cody Zilverberg who brings tremendous livestock brainpower to Dakota Lakes, along with a passion for livestock integration research.

“The brain transplant story began years ago with local Gettysburg farmer Ralph Holzwarth, one of our important first-adopter guys,” Beck says. “When people asked him how to no-till, he said ‘Before I start talking, go down to Dakota Lakes and have a brain transplant, then come back.’

“It’s really about a different way of thinking. The Dakota Lakes research program looks at the whole system to help understand how all the players work,” he says.

For example, when looking at weed control, it doesn’t begin with an herbicide solution. Instead, it starts with defining what rotation allowed this weed to grow. Then, you need to figure out how to take that opportunity away instead of what kills it. What characteristics of that weed or insect caused it to thrive?

That’s what Dakota Lakes is all about. “Visitors are amazed at how few weeds we have, and we don’t use that much herbicide, but we use crop diversity. So weed problems don’t exist unless we do something stupid,” he says. “That’s the difference, the brain transplant part, the realization that we can change what we do.”

In this podcast, Beck also explores how the digital data from precision ag technology still lacks success when communicating with the analog brain between farmers’ ears. “We need to develop an integral knowledge of every square inch of our land much like the early farmers who picked corn by hand,” he says. “Sitting in a cab insulates one from feeling the land. And I don’t think we’ve taken that approach yet with precision ag data. But that’s what we have here at Dakota Lakes because of the local long-term approach people we have involved.”

Dwayne Beck

Real long-term thinking needed

Beck says there is no end to the research that is needed. “Native Americans talk of a planning cycle of seven generations, which is 280 years if you use 40 years per generation. We tend to think about farm bills because politicians can’t think long-term. That needs to change because we cannot continue to allow 450,000 pounds of phosphate to leave the area in every unit train of soybeans. It’s not coming back, so how long can we afford to mine it or put it in the ocean?”

Beck appreciates the desire of his farmer board members to keep their owned farmland in the family farm long term. “Since universities, industry and leased-land farmers can’t think long-term, we need farmers and ranchers with a long-term vision to stop being miners and exporters.

Listen to all the details on this podcast. And visit the podcast page to view many rangeland topics from the Growing Resilience Through Our Soils series.

–Growing Resilience Through Our Soils

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