Grain Bins


Census of Ag: More No-till and Cover Crops

Posted on May 15, 2019

Field of Turnips or Radishes used as a Cover CropDrive around rural South Dakota during the growing season and you’re likely to see some turnips, radishes and rye.

The number of acres of cover crops nearly doubled from 2012 to 2017. The 2017 Census of Agriculture, recently released by the USDA, reported that South Dakota farmers planted cover crops on 282,000 acres, an 89 percent increase from 149,000 acres in 2012.

Those statistics and others reflect a growing commitment to on-farm conservation practices. The number of no-till acres climbed to 7.66 million–half a million more acres than in 2012. In addition to no-till, the number of reduced-tillage cropland grew to 4.3 million acres, a 24 percent increase from 3.46 million in 2012.

Although the heaviest concentration of no-till acres is along the Missouri River and in the state’s central counties, the practice has expanded in a number of eastern counties such as Roberts, Brookings, Lake, Clay and Union, said Jeff Zimprich, state conservationist with the South Dakota office of Natural Resources Conservation (NRCS).

“We are seeing more no-till across the state,” Zimprich said. “Farmer by farmer, neighbor by neighbor… they’re seeing the benefit of no-till systems, especially when they combine them with all other practices.”

No-till systems were being used on 45 percent of South Dakota cropland in 2017 compared with 22 percent mulch till, 17 percent reduced tillage and 16 percent conventional tillage, according to the NRCS.

No-till is touted for its moisture-retention benefits during dry weather or droughts, but Zimprich said it’s also beneficial when we have high levels of precipitation like South Dakota experienced last year and again this year because it creates good soil structure and provides better infiltration. He said he believes the farmers who were able to get some field work done early in this wet spring are those who have good soil structure.

At Southeast Research Farm, Peter Sexton said they were able to plant oats on no-till ground in April despite the wet weather.

“No-till gives us better soil structure and trafficability,” said Sexton, a sustainable cropping systems specialist with South Dakota State University Extension.

Sexton said they were unable to plant on a piece of ground that had been tilled, but were able to plant on the no-till ground because it is structurally stronger and holds equipment up. That’s a benefit for soil sampling, fertilizing and planting, he said.

While it’s true that soil is a couple of degrees cooler on no-till ground than in a tilled field in late-May or early June, Sexton said there’s not much difference once the crop canopies. Besides, lower temperatures are better in August when corn is maturing.

Grant Rix of Groton said there hasn’t been much change in tillage practices in his part of the state during the past few years, although there is probably more minimum tillage than there was a decade ago.

His family farm had been no-till since the early 1980s but switched to minimum tillage six years ago. A primary reason for the switch was that no-till fields had gotten rough during the course of several wet years. Through minimum tillage, they were able to smooth the ground. The change had also helped control weeds and incorporate fertilizer, said Rix, who is secretary/treasurer of the South Dakota Corn Utilization Council.

The region around Groton has diverse soil types, with sandy ground to the north and a lot of clay where the Rixes farm. Most farmers who were doing heavy tillage years ago still do, Rix said.

He and his family have planted some cover crops on barren ground and plan to do some again this year on “prevented planting” acres.

The USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service conducts a Census of Agriculture every five years and released the 2017 census in April. Here are some other South Dakota statistics from the report.

General Information

  • The number of farms declined 6 percent from 2012 to 2017, from 31,989 to 29,968. The NASS has since updated that number for 2018 to 29,600.
  • Land in farms, at 43.2 million acres, accounts for 89.1percent of the total land area of the state. That compares to 39.8 percent of the entire U.S. that is considered farmland.
  • Total South Dakota cropland: 19.8 million acres.
  • Market value of ag products sold in 2017: $9.7 billion.
  • The average farm size: 1,443 acres.
  • Average age of farmers: 56.2 compared with 54.3 in 2012.
  • 78 percent of all SD farmers have been on the same farm for 10 or more years.
  • 10 percent of SD farmers served in the military.
  • Young farmers (35 or younger) account for 12 percent of all farmers.
  • Females account for 30 percent of all farmers.
  • 81 percent of SD farms have Internet access.

Grain Farming

  • Only 2.4 percent of South Dakota cropland is irrigated.
  • The top five crops by acres; 1–corn; 2–soybeans; 3–hay; 4–wheat; 5–sunflowers.

Livestock Numbers

  • Cattle ranching and farming: 20.2 million acres.
  • Cattle numbers: 3.99 million head. 43 percent of the cattle are in herds of fewer than 100 head.
  • Hogs and pigs: 1.56 million head.
  • Sheep and lambs: One-quarter million.
  • Chickens: Egg production, 785 million eggs, with 2.71 million layers.
  • Turkeys: More than 4 million.

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