Program Targets Marginal Lands

A new program is offering farmers in 15 South Dakota counties an opportunity to make the best use of unproductive land while also improving their bottom lines.

The program, named Every Acre Counts, focuses on developing and implementing strategies to improve soil health, diversity and farm profitability on marginal land where crop production is problematic.

South Dakota State Extension is heading up the program in partnership with the South Dakota Habitat Conservation Foundation, South Dakota Corn, South Dakota Soil Health Coalition, Pheasants Forever and Ducks Unlimited. SDSU Extension specialists Anthony Bly and Matt Diersen are in charge of the project.

“We have to continue to produce crops, so we need to take care of the house. The house is the soil,” Bly said. “If our house runs down in 50, 60 years, we repair it. It’s the same with soil.”

The program targets land in four geographic regions: (1) eroded and wet soils in Moody, Lake and Minnehaha counties; (2) saline/sodic soils and wet areas in Brown, Spink, Clark and Day counties; (3) eroded areas, wet and saline/sodic soils in Aurora, Brule, Buffalo and Jerauld counties; and (4) wet areas and saline/sodic soils in Edmunds, Potter, Faulk and Walworth counties.

In each region, teams of SDSU faculty, students and technical advisers will work with about 10 landowners. Each farmer will enroll 1,000 acres in the program, resulting in a total of 40,000 acres.

Through this working-lands program, the Extension team and partners will develop and implement strategies that use precision technologies and regenerative agricultural techniques. That will help farmers make better management decisions on every acre of their land.

“Humans are smart,” Bly said. “If you look at yield monitor data for five years and see areas that don’t pay for themselves, then you have to look at doing something different.”

Dealing with narrow profit margins, farmers lose money when they attempt to use the same farming techniques on marginal land as they use on their better soils. Alternative practices provide an option to try something else that might be more successful.

Bly said he’s excited about the program and encouraged by the interest that’s already being shown by farmers/landowners.

Cindy Zenk, coordinator of the South Dakota Soil Health Coalition, said she and the board of directors became involved because they believe Every Acre Counts is an excellent program that shows farmers how to optimize every acre of their land.

“Any way we can provide options for producers and help them aid their bottom line is always good,” Zenk said.

The program provides opportunities for farmers to continue getting the maximum potential from their most-productive acres while determining better ways to utilize and manage their least-productive land, she said.

Over the long term, making improvements to the marginal soil will lead to increased yields, she said. In situations where soil has high sodic or saline content, finding ways to reduce those problem areas rather than letting them grow will also have long-term benefits.

Zenk said the hope is that the program will expand to include all of South Dakota.

Millions of acres of cropland across South Dakota are hindered by wet conditions or problems caused by excess moisture. An estimated 10 percent of land on a typical farm is either considered marginal or contains problem soils.

This program builds upon other soil-enhancing programs. For instance, South Dakota Corn and Pheasants Forever are partners in a program that addresses saline/sodic soils. Ducks Unlimited and the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service are working together on two projects in eastern South Dakota.

SDSU student involvement is an important part of this new project. The students who will work with farmers represent four disciplines: agronomy, wildlife, engineering and economics. The use of precision ag technology opens the door to various management practices.

Bly, who learned an appreciation for healthy soil, water quality and conservation from his dad, said he looks forward to seeing the program succeed and grow.

“We want to put the acres in the use they should be in,” Bly said. “Highest and best use was the term when I was in college. It’s the same thing we’re talking about now. What is the highest and best use for the soil?”

SD Corn file photo: Anthony Bly digs a shovel full of soil in a field of cover crops to get a good look at soil nutrients.

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