Slowing Down the Salt Path | TSLN.com

Slowing Down the Salt Path

Saline soils aren't very productive, but a new partnership is hoping to change that. Photo courtesy South Dakota Corn Growers Association.

Producers living alongside the Upper James River may notice a white dusting covering chunks of their land. 

It's not dirty snow; it's salt due to high salinity soils, and it's impacting 7.6 million acres of farmland in South Dakota. 

Due to high water tables, salt rises to the surface, and when the water evaporates, the salt remains and looks a lot like snow as it covers the topsoil of a field. The result is drought-like conditions with poor growth, reduced nutrition to the plants, and unproductive areas in a field. Left unaddressed, saline areas can grow in size, destroying larger areas of land and impacting producers' pocketbooks. 

Highlighting the problem is recent data from the South Dakota Natural Resources Conservation Service, which showed that from 2007 to 2011, three counties in South Dakota —Beadle, Brown and Spink — suffered an economic loss of $26.2 million due to salinity issues. 

To tackle this growing issue, the South Dakota Corn Growers Association (SDCGA) has partnered with Pheasants Forever to launch the Saline Soils Initiative.  

The new program provides seed and a one-time payment of $150/acre to landowners as incentive to establish perennial vegetation on cropland that has been damaged by soil salinity. The program is available to producers on a first-come, first serve basis in 30 counties stretching from Aberdeen to Yankton and will be open until 4,000 acres are enrolled. It is made possible through matching $100,000 grants provided by SDCGA and Pheasants Forever.  

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"Historically, people view us on opposite sides of the spectrum, and we're really not," said Matt Morlock, acting director for the South Dakota regional office of Pheasants Forever. "We're on the same path, same focus, same vision. I think this has big implications for our state in the long run." 

"This partnership is pretty significant as SDCGA has never worked with a group like Pheasants Forever before," added Lisa Richardson, SDCGA executive director. "However, soil health is one of our biggest research efforts, and we want the land we manage to be more vibrant, so this partnership makes perfect sense as we work on this goal together." 

The enrollment process includes a short two-page form and a visit from one of Pheasants Forever's farm bill biologists. Once the acres have been identified, the designated area is contracted to the program for five years; however, unlike the USDA's Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) the Saline Soil Initiative allows producers to graze or harvest those acres from July 15 to March 1.  

"With even minor salt issues, we start to see reduced crop yields in these fields," said Morlock. "Once the saline gets to a certain level, it becomes a void spot. There have been numerous methods researched and tested throughout the years to fix this problem; however, it's been proven that the most effective way to address high salt areas is to plant perennial vegetation with deep roots to break up the clay pan, so the salts and minerals can be pulled back down where they are supposed to be." 

Millborne Seed, of Brookings, S.D., is providing the seed mix, which includes 10-15 species of plants, including intermediate wheat grass, switch grass, salt-tolerant alfalfa, sweet clover and milk weed, which not only provides good grazing, but also offers excellent habitat for nesting pheasants and monarch butterflies.  

Steve Masat, a farmer and rancher from Redfield, S.D., participated in a pilot program that evaluated how effective this grass seed was at lessening the effects of high salinity soils. 

Choosing acres on a tough quarter of ground with compaction issues, Masat has seen a real difference in the land after planting the grass mix. 

"We signed up two years ago, and we've noticed the salt encroachment has kind of idled back, and we have a live root base established during the growing season," he said. "We don't see water just sitting on the ground because the moisture is being taken up by the alfalfa and grass. We are pleased with the results, and this is another crop for us to utilize as our cattle can graze on it in the fall." 

The pilot program was run by Pheasants Forever using money from the South Dakota Conservation Fund established after Governor Dennis Daugaard's 2013 Habitat Summit. 

"It's really a common sense approach to this issue," said Masat. "It promotes nesting habitat, which benefits the birds, but it's not tied up for 10 years either. Producers can still hay and graze it. There's real value in it for everyone involved. I would encourage producers to consider signing up if they have some spots with high concentrations of salt in their fields." 

The Saline Soil Initiative was announced at the 2018 National Pheasant Fest & Quail Classic in Sioux Falls earlier this spring, and the partnership is the first of its kind that focuses on improving soil health to increase agricultural productivity and provide critical upland wildlife habitat. 

"This is all part of our soil health initiative to increase organic matter and protect the soil surface with crop residues, cover crops and rotations," added Jim Ristau, SDCGA sustainability director. "It's important for our state's corn producers to increase productivity in a very sustainable manner, and that will be the topic of discussion at our upcoming workshop." 

Producers are invited to an upcoming carbon workshop hosted and sponsored by the South Dakota Association of Conservation Districts, South Dakota State University and the South Dakota Corn Council on Sept. 20 at the farm of Ryan Wagner, Corn Utilization Council president, in Day County. A similar workshop focused on salinity issues was held in July.  

"Whether it's carbon or saline, both are water management issues, and these workshops really focus on the latest research that farmers can implement to better manage moisture to increase organic matter and promote soil health," said Ristau. 

For more information about upcoming workshops, call the SDCGA office at 605-334-0100. To sign up for the Saline Soil Initiative, contact Morlock at 605-692-6006.